SUNRISE – When the game ended, with the horn blowing and the puck sliding harmlessly wide of the Panthers net, defenseman Bryan McCabe skated behind the goal, took his stick, and whacked the puck into the boards in frustration.
It summed up Friday evening at BankAtlantic Center.
Trying to gain ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race with only five games remaining in the regular season, the Panthers three-game winning streak came to a screeching halt when goalie Johan Hedberg turned aside 35 shots and Rich Peverley scored twice to help the Thrashers to a 3-1 victory over the Panthers.
The Panthers remain two points behind the idle Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and three points behind seventh-place Montreal. The Sabres are two points behind the Panthers in 10th.
The Canadiens, Rangers and Sabres all play Saturday.
The Thrashers, 13th in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the league, came into BankAtlantic Center on a three-game winning streak and having won 11 of their last 15 while scoring 82 goals in their last 21 games.
But it was also a game the Panthers had to win if they hoped to gain ground in the playoff hunt. And it was also a game in which the Panthers failed to capitalize on four power plays against the worst penalty killing unit in the league.
“This is one we definitely thought we needed,” McCabe said. “At home against one of the bottom teams in our conference. I don’t think we played that bad, we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. What can you do?”
Panthers coach Peter DeBoer gave the Thrashers credit for winning battles, being a desperate team and playing a good road game. But he also didn’t see enough Panther bodies in front of Hedberg or the Thrashers net.
“I think the effort was there, our heart was in the right place,” DeBoer said. “The same thing we battled throughout the year kind of came back to bite us tonight. Too much play in the perimeter. We didn’t get to the front of the net. (Hedberg) saw most of the shots that did get to the net.
“It was just a frustrating night. Nothing seemed to be working and you didn’t feel that mojo on the bench that we’ve had in the past…for whatever reason.”
Across the ice from Hedberg, goalie Craig Anderson, making his fourth consecutive start for the Panthers, stopped 29 shots (the third goalie coming after he was on his way to the bench for an extra attacker with 1:03 remaining in regulation).
Tonight’s Mayors Jewelers Three Star Selections of the Game are:
1st: Rich Peverley 2nd: Johan Hedberg 3rd: Gregory Campbell
Mayors is the Official Jeweler of the Florida Panthers, please visit www.mayors.com or your local South Florida Mayors location.
DeBoer was pleased with Anderson’s effort, but he didn’t rule out going back to Tomas Vokoun come Sunday afternoon when the Panthers play host to the Penguins.
“It doesn’t mean I’m not going to make a change,” said DeBoer when asked if Anderson’s play allowed him a fifth consecutive start Sunday. “I’m going to sleep on it tonight and go with whoever I think can win us a game on Sunday.”
The game started with an exciting first period, featuring a total of 32 shots (14 for the Panthers). A goal by Michael Frolik at 11:17 was waived off due to a high stick, and both Anderson and Hedberg played well through the opening 20 minutes.
But it was also a first period the Panthers thought they could have played better.
“I thought they outplayed us in the first period,” said defenseman Nick Boynton. “You come out hard against a team like that, they usually don’t feel like playing. They have nothing to play for and we’ve got everything to play for.”
It was the Thrashers who drew first blood at 2:23 of the second period when Rich Peverley snapped a wrist shot from the high slot that sailed over Anderson’s right shoulder.
Just three minutes later, the Panthers evened the scored when Richard Zednik moved down the left wing and got the puck in front to Gregory Campbell, who got his own rebound and put it past Hedberg for his 13th goal of the season and his first in 24 games.
“The one goal we did score was Gregory Campbell actually going to the net and getting in that dirty area,” DeBoer said. “But we didn’t have enough guys in those areas tonight.”
The game remained tied only because of the goaltending of Anderson and Hedberg. At 8:42 of the second, Anderson made a sprawling, pad save on a partial breakaway by Jim Slater. Just 12 seconds later, Hedberg stopped Richard Zednik with his shoulder on a breakaway.
The Panthers best chances came early in the third period. Nathan Horton appeared to have a wide open net at 4:45 to shoot at, but his shot was deflected by the stick of defenseman Boris Valabik. Just seconds earlier, Hedberg picked up a Jassen Cullimore shot from the point despite being partially screened in front by Campbell.
The Thrashers rewarded Hedberg at 11:06 of the final period when Peverley this time whistled a wrist shot over Anderson’s left shoulder for a 2-1 lead. With time running out and Anderson skating toward the bench, Stephen Weiss over-skated the puck in the neutral zone and Todd White deposited the puck into the empty Panthers net with 1:03 remaining while Anderson attempted to stop the sliding puck by throwing his stick at it.
On this night, nothing seemed to work.
“We don’t really do things easy around here,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “You’ve just got to put it behind you.”
Added DeBoer: “We’re still alive. We’re in the last week of the season and two points out of the playoff spot. There’s a lot of hockey left.”
Big games Saturday in the push to the playoffs.
The Rangers are at Boston, Montreal is at Toronto, Pittsburgh is at Carolina, Buffalo at New Jersey and Philadelphia at Ottawa.
PENGUINS UP NEXT
The Penguins are up next Sunday at BankAtlantic Center. They’ll play at Carolina Saturday before boarding a plane and playing the Panthers at 5 p.m.
The Penguins, 13-1-2 in their last 16 games, are 6-6 this season in the second of back-to-back games. The Panthers are 1-1-1 against the Penguins this season, winning Jan. 3 in Pittsburgh 6-1 and losing two games in March, one in a shootout.
IN THE HOUSE
Dolphins lineman Jake Long, ninth-ranked WTA Tennis star Nadia Petrova, and former Panther Jozef Stumpel.
Rostislav Olesz and Brett McLean each had only one shift in the third period…The Thrashers had 15 blocked shots, the Panthers nine…Campbell led the Panthers with four hits…Horton had five shots…Bouwmeester logged 28:02 of playing time and had a couple big blocks during a Thrashers power play in the second period…Garnet Exelby had four hits for the Thrashers, including two in the first period on Cory Stillman…Thrashers center Marty Reasoner won 13 of 20 faceoffs…The Panthers 87 points represent the most they’ve had since 1999-2000, the last time they went to the playoffs…Defenseman Steve Eminger and forwards Nick Tarnasky and Anthony Stewart were scratched…