“All losses sting,” summed up coach Peter DeBoer. “Obviously, the way we lost makes it sting a little more.”
Leading 1-0 with 2:46 remaining in the game, the Panthers were hit twice 1:13 apart by goals from Raffi Torres. It led to the Panthers undoing and their chance to climb back to eighth in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“We should have won the game,” Dvorak said.
Hitchcock would have agreed. But instead of jumping over Montreal in the Eastern Conference playoff race – the Canadiens lost to Toronto 5-2 – the Panthers remained a point behind Montreal and are now five points behind the sixth-place Hurricanes, who visit BankAtlantic for an huge game Monday evening.
With the Panthers holding onto a 1-0 lead, Torres tied the game at 17:14 when he took a seeing-eye pass from Kristian Huselius that found its way under a couple sticks and rammed it into the Panther net.
Just 1:13 later, Torres took a feed from Michael Peca inside the right faceoff circle near the hash mark and whistled a wrist shot past goalie Tomas Vokoun (34 saves). Antoine Vermette scored into an empty net to wrap it up for the Blue Jackets.
“I don’t think we lost the game in the last two minutes,” DeBoer said. “I thought we lost it earlier in the game with the opportunities we had in the offensive zone. We had some slam dunks around their net. To their credit, I thought their guy (goalie Steve Mason) made a couple huge saves.”
After not registering a shot in the first 14:23 of the game, the Panthers took a 1-0 lead at 15:31 of the game courtesy of their fourth line of Brett McLean, Nick Tarnasky and Rostislav Olesz.
It started with McLean skating the puck behind the Blue Jackets net, turning at the goal line, and shooting it on goal. The puck came out to Tarnasky, whose shot was stopped by Mason. But the puck lay in the crease, where Olesz, on the ice, slapped it into the net for a 1-0 lead.
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For Olesz, who missed 43 games after having surgery for a sports hernia, it was his first goal since Nov. 1 against Nashville and first point since Nov. 12 against Tampa.
The Panthers ended the first period being outshot 10-9. Five of their nine shots came from the fourth line.
“It was good to score,” said Olesz, playing in his fourth game since returning from the injury. “We had a lot of chances to go up by two, but we didn’t.”
Mason, the leading Calder Trophy candidate, made big saves on David Booth and Richard Zednik in close during the second period and made a glove save on Weiss from the corner of the net. The Panthers could have done a better job getting the puck on goal during three power plays. They’ve now scored only one goal in their last 18 power play chances.
“When he had to make a save he made it,” said Weiss of Mason. “I don’t think we overwhelmed him.”
The Panthers, who had a minute of power play time carried over from the second period, didn’t do much wrong early in the third period. Dvorak thought the Panthers played one of their better games recently in all three zones.
But the Blue Jackets, also fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, started taking more chances. Their defense started pinching in and joining the rush.
“Maybe we chipped-in, chipped-out a little too early instead of trying to make plays, going through the neutral zone and getting into their zone,” said Ville Peltonen of the third period. “We cleared out zone, through the neutral zone, they came right back.”
Seventeen, third period shots on Vokoun later, the Blue Jackets left the ice with a 3-1 victory.
“Maybe if we buried our chances it would have been a different story,” Dvorak said.
For the Panthers, it was the third time in their last eight games they blew a third period lead. Uncharacteristic of a team 25-2-3 when leading after two periods.
“If we were giving up 10 or 20 chances and going into a shell, and doing some of those things, I’d be worried,” DeBoer said. “We’re doing the same things we did early in the year. We’re just finding a way to lose instead of win.”
At the end of the day, DeBoer reasoned, “A loss is a loss, and we have to keep moving forward.”
In fact, the Panthers need to end this five-game homestand Monday with a big performance against the Hurricanes, who are on a three-game winning streak.
“We’ll regroup and have a better effort Monday night,” Weiss said.
“We’re not putting up any white flags,” DeBoer said. “There’s a lot of hockey left and we have a big, four-pointer on Monday.”
BIG PENALTY KILL TO START
The Panthers found themselves short-handed 6:05 into the game when Olesz was called for tripping. But the Panthers penalty kill didn’t allow the Blue Jackets a shot on goal and Keith Ballard had two big blocks.
The Panthers have been outscored in the third period 10-1 in their last six games…Nathan Horton (finger) practiced with the power play unit Saturday morning. Horton, who’s missed six games, is probable for Monday’s game against the Hurricanes…The Panthers out-hit the Blue Jackets 25-21…This was the first meeting in South Florida between the Blue Jackets and Panthers since Jan. 14, 2006…Anthony Stewart and Nick Boynton were scratches for the Panthers…Starting lineup for the Panthers: Dvorak, Kamil Kreps, Peltonen, Ballard, Bryan McCabe and Vokoun, who started his ninth consecutive game…
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