SUNRISE – It was late Sunday afternoon and the Panthers needed a boost.
Despite being tied with the Penguins 1-1 at BankAtlantic Center late in the first period, the Panthers were being swarmed by the visitors and getting outshot 18-4.
The Panthers needed a lift, a flicker of hope.
Enter defenseman Keith Ballard.
Ballard laid a hip check on Penguins star Evgeni Malkin at the blue line that sent a crowd of 18,232 out of their seats, Malkin head-over-heels to the ice, and Penguins wunderkid Sidney Crosby to the defense of his teammate.
It also jump-started the Panthers to a 4-2 victory and into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with three games remaining.
“It was huge,” said David Booth, who had the game-winning goal.
“It sparked us,” said defenseman Bryan McCabe, who had a goal and assist.
“That obviously came at a key time,” said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. “We were a little tentative to start. It got the crowd into it, got emotions going, it loosened us up a little bit.
“We’re in a hole tonight if we don’t win. We can wake up (Monday) tied for the last playoff spot.”
The Panthers won their 39th game of the year, topping last year’s mark of 38 for their most wins since 1999-00. With three games remaining, the Panthers hit the road for a two-game road trip beginning Tuesday in Philadelphia and ending Thursday in Atlanta. They return to BankAtlantic Center for their final game of the season Saturday against the Capitals.
The Panthers and Rangers are tied for eighth in the East with 89 points. The Rangers have one more victory than the Panthers, which is the first tie-breaker for the playoffs.
For the Panthers, it’s pretty simple this last week. Win.
Asked if he thought the Panthers would get into the playoffs if they won their last three games, DeBoer said, “Obviously, it’s not in our control with New York and the situation we’re in.”
“Do I think if we win our last three games we’ll get into the playoffs? Yeah, I do.”
It started well for the Panthers. With Tomas Vokoun back in goal and making his first start since March 25, the Panthers took a 1-0 lead just 1:55 into the game when Rostislav Olesz collected a loose puck defenseman Hal Gill swatted at and missed and backhanded it past goalie Marc-Andrew Fleury for his fourth goal of the season.
The Penguins tied it at one at 6:08 when Tyler Kennedy slid the puck from behind the net to the slot. Defenseman Karlis Skrastins had the puck on his stick, but Pascal Dupuis slapped the puck off Skrastins stick and past Vokoun.
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The Penguins slowly took control of the game, outshooting the Panthers at one point 18-4. But the game changed dramatically with 1:49 remaining in the opening period when Ballard laid out Malkin with the check at the Panther blue line.
Ballard knew they’d be a price to pay, and it was Crosby heading toward him. The gloves came off between Ballard and Crosby, but it was Crosby who got an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I understand that’s part of the game,” said Ballard of Crosby going after him after the hit. “They really weren’t happy with it, (but) it was good. It got some energy and we had a pretty good effort after that.”
Booth called it one of the “best hits all year.”
“It got the crowd into it,” he added. “Not only was it a big hit, but it was on Malkin, one of the best players in the NHL. It definitely changed the momentum.”
Ballard, who just two weeks earlier sent the Flyers Scott Hartnell to the ice with a similar hit, was asked if this was his best?
“Yeah, just because of who it was,” he said.
Ballard’s hit invigorated the Panthers, and just a minute later the Panthers went the dressing room with a 2-1 lead when Bryan McCabe blasted a slap shot by Fleury from between the top of the faceoff circles.
Despite being outshot 19-7 in the first period, the Panthers had a 2-1 lead.
DeBoer said he didn’t mind the shot totals.
“They were throwing everything to the net,” he said. “You have to bend with a team like that and give up something. We were giving up some perimeter shots in order to protect the net area.”
The Panthers stretched that lead to 3-1 with only 12 seconds remaining in the second period when, with the Panthers on the power play and Vokoun on the bench for a delayed penalty, Jay Bouwmeester got the puck to side of the net where Booth buried it into an open net. Nathan Horton didn’t get an assist on the play but was key by saving the puck from leaving the Penguins zone.
It was Booth’s team-leading 28th goal of the season.
The Penguins didn’t go quietly, however. At 14:06 of the third period, Mark Eaton scored on the power play to make it a 3-2 game. But Ville Peltonen scored a huge goal with 4:04 remaining in regulation when he skated to the Penguins net and pushed the puck past Fleury with three Penguin defenders surrounding him.
“It was a huge goal,” said DeBoer of Peltonen’s 12th of the season. “He did exactly what we talked about the last 24 hours. He took the puck to the net. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s got a big heart and he’s fearless and just bulled his way to the net.”
Vokoun stopped 41 shots to win his 24th game of the season and his first since March 19.
“I think we played hard,” Vokoun said. “You see guys blocking shots…guys played great. We got some big performances. That’s what we need this time of year.”
The Panthers practice Monday at IncredibleIce before starting their final road trip of the season, a trip that could lead to the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2000.
“We can’t take too much out of this game,” Peltonen said. “We have to get ready for Philly.”
Games Monday night with playoff implications:
Montreal will play host to the Senators. The Canadiens are 24-8-7 at home this season. The Senators are 13-22-4 on the road. Montreal is 5-2-3 in their last 10 at home, the Senators 3-6-1 in their last 10 on the road.
The Sabres, 10th and still alive, play host to the Red Wings.
Cory Stillman’s assist on David Booth’s goal was the 400th of his NHL career…Ballard ended the night with six hits, Gregory Campbell led the team with seven hits…Kamil Kreps won nine of 14 faceoffs…Rostislav Olesz’s play earned good reviews from DeBoer. Olesz had a goal and assist, was a plus-2, and had four shots and two hits. “Probably his best game since I’ve been here,” DeBoer said. “He was aggressive, won battles, made good plays with the puck.”...Fleury got the start after facing 30 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss Saturday evening in Carolina. He faced only 11 shots over the last 44:49…Fleury stopped Stephen Weiss on a breakaway in the first period with a nice right pad save… The Penguins came into Sunday’s game 15-2-4 since Dan Bylsma took over as coach on Feb. 15…Forwards Anthony Stewart and Nick Tarnasky and defenseman Steve Eminger were scratched by the Panthers. The Penguins went without Eric Goddard and Philippe Boucher…