COYOTES 4, PANTHERS 3 (SO)
BY GEORGE RICHARDS
There are a few reasons why the Phoenix Coyotes are gunning for the top seed in the Western Conference this season and the Panthers are only a few spots away from last place in the entire league.
Thursday night offered yet another example.
Leading by a goal late in the third period, Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun couldn't field a shot from 105 feet away, the puck skipping off the ice in front of the net before bouncing off his glove and into the back of the net.
Phoenix's goal tied the game – one the Panthers led by three going into the period – and forced overtime where the Coyotes ended up winning 4-3 in a shootout. The win was Phoenix's seventh straight; the Panthers have dropped two in a row.
“That's why that team is where they're at: They find ways to win,'' said coach Pete DeBoer. “You see one of those [goals] in a season in the NHL in all the games. It is what it is. For us, it seems like it's Murphy's Law. Whatever can go wrong does.''
With Nathan Horton back from injury, the Panthers had their top line intact Thursday for the first time since October and looked to have a celebratory reunion. But then came the third period.
Horton, David Booth and Stephen Weiss had a say in Florida's first three goals, but the visiting Coyotes scored three in the third as they outshot the Cats 19-6 in that session. Florida couldn't slow down the red-hot Coyotes as Phoenix made it a game with two quick goals in the third period. Even still, it looked like the Panthers would survive, with Ilya Bryzgalov coming out of his net with 1:03 left.
Radim Vrbata brought the puck up to center ice and shot it from behind the red line. Unbelievably, the shot from behind the center stripe got past Vokoun and the game was tied with 59.7 seconds left.
Vokoun has been part of the league highlights for his spectacular play all season, but this goal will be replayed over and over. The small crowd then turned on Florida's MVP, mockingly cheering his next save before backing him again in overtime as he turned back a number of tough shots offered by the Coyotes.
“He stops 50 shots a night for us every freaking game,'' said captain Bryan McCabe. “On our ice, anything can happen. It was bouncing all night. It was bound to happen once this year. It was bouncing like a tennis ball. What can you do?''
Said Horton: “The ice wasn't very good. It was a bad bounce, a bad break.''
Both Booth (45 games) and Horton (17) have missed extensive time because of injury. On Thursday the trio showed the Panthers what might have been as Weiss and Booth scored with Weiss and Horton assisting on Cory Stillman's goal – the one that gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead heading into the final 20 minutes.
The three – dubbed the 'Sunrise Express' -- each had two goals in the opening nine games before Booth was knocked out Oct. 24 in Philadelphia.
“It was nice, it felt good out there,'' said Horton, who had two assists and scored Florida's lone shootout goal. “There's so much talent, you know you are going to get the puck and usually something good happens.''
Weiss got the Panthers going at the end of the first by scoring on a power play from the left circle with 6.7 seconds left for his 99th career goal. Booth made it 2-0 less than two minutes into the second by redirecting a McCabe shot from in front of the net. Later in the period, Cory Stillman backhanded a deflection with Weiss and Horton getting assists.
“We're a different team with Horton in the lineup, I think you can see that,'' said DeBoer. “We have a first line that takes some pressure off Stillman and Reinprecht.''
Things have decidedly stalled for Rostislav Olesz as he has gone 19 straight games without a single point.
DeBoer said earlier in the season that he holds Olesz to a higher standard because of his high draft status (seventh overall in 2004) and his contract (Olesz signed a six-year deal worth $3.25 million per prior to the 2008-09 season).
So with Olesz struggling, DeBoer is obviously not happy. Olesz started on Florida's fourth line Thursday.
“I know I would be frustrated and I hope he would be,'' he said Thursday morning. “You want to see that channeled on the ice and see him fight his way through that and not just surrender and be happy with the spot he's in.''
-- With the Coyotes just a few points away from the top seed in the Western Conference after finishing 25th in the league last season, DeBoer says the Panthers can not only learn from Phoenix's success, but have hope as well. The Panthers came into the day ranked 27th in the 30 team league.
“That's where we want to get to,'' he said. “It shows organizations like us that we're not that far away.''
-- University of Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie, a Panthers prospect, was named one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award -- college hockey's Heisman Trophy. Cheverie is 24-4-3 with a 1.94 GAA for the top-ranked Pioneers.