LIGHTNING 4, PANTHERS 2
TAMPA – The only excitement left in the Florida Panthers season is the knowledge the end of it is near.
The Panthers continued their limp toward what should be a very eventful offseason on Friday as Tampa Bay scored twice in the second period and rolled to a 4-2 win at St. Pete Times Forum as the Panthers winless streak reached 10 – Florida's longest losing stretch since the 2005-06 team lost 12 straight following Hurricane Wilma.
With the Islanders losing in a shootout to the Penguins on Saturday, the Panthers assured themselves of finishing in last place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history.
Florida will finish 28th in the 30 team league and increased its chances for a top three draft pick – the lottery will be held Tuesday in Toronto with Bill Torrey representing the team – thanks to this sustained losing streak.
“I was proud of the effort, we came out ready to play,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “We played right to the buzzer. .-.-. This is tough, but the guys are playing hard. We're not embarrassing ourselves. We're not getting blown out 6-1, 7-1. You see scores like that around the league. It's a lot easier standing behind the bench going through what we are when we're getting this effort and they're playing as hard as they are.''
The Panthers, which haven't won since dropping Toronto 4-0 on March 17, plays their regular season finale at BankAtlantic Center on Saturday night. In the days, weeks and months to follow, thing should get interesting.
The same can't be said for what has been on the ice of late.
Tampa Bay, which is gearing up for its first postseason run since 2007, took control of Friday's game early and finally dominated the Panthers in a series in which Florida has historically held the upper hand.
This was a different team, however, as the lineup DeBoer was forced to roll out on Friday may have struggled to win a game in the American Hockey League – much less beat a team trying to better its postseason standing. EDIT: Apparently I was looking at next season's page; Florida's payroll is currently around $36 million....According to capgeek.com, the Panthers came into the game with a league-low payroll of less than $17 million -- $13 million less than No. 29 Phoenix.
Tampa Bay took an early 1-0 lead on a power play goal from Vinny Lecavalier 4:08 into the game, only to see Florida defenseman Jason Garrison – whose Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs are playing for the NCAA hockey championship – whip a long shot past Dwayne Roloson midway through the period.
Florida gave up the second goal in strange fashion as Ryan Malone put a shot on goalie Scott Clemmensen. The soft poke check from Clemmensen hit teammate Shawn Matthias as he was charging in, the puck bounding right back at Clemmensen and past him into the net.
The Panthers were never the same after that one. “That one killed us,'' DeBoer said. “Where we're at, we need everything to go right.''
In the second, Lecavalier crashed in on Clemmensen only to pulled down in the process by Keaton Ellerby. Lecavalier faked out Clemmensen and scored on the ensuing penalty shot to make it 3-1. The Lightning then took a 4-1 lead into the third when Pavel Kubina beat Clemmensen from the right side.
Florida's lone highlight the rest of the night came when Mike Santorelli scored his 20th goal of the season by following his own shot in the early going of the third to cut the Panthers deficit in half.
“We took a lot of penalties but played them well 5-on-5,'' Santorelli said. “Their power play is unreal and it put us behind the 8-ball.''
ONE AND DONE
With the season finale on Saturday, a number of Panthers have played their final game of the season – and perhaps their final game with the organization.
Center Stephen Weiss, second on the team with 21 goals, didn't skate Friday because of his groin injury and won't play Saturday against the Capitals. Others who won't play include pending free agents Darcy Hordichuk, Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter and Alexander Sulzer.
Tomas Vokoun, who hasn't played since hurting his back March 27 in Pittsburgh, is scheduled to start what could be his Florida finale. Vokoun came to the Panthers prior to the 2007-08 season in a trade with Nashville and is in the final season of a four-year contract.
-- The Panthers recalled forwards Bill Thomas and Patrick Rissmiller from their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., to fill in. Those two were likely the final call-ups from Rochester as the rocky relationship between the two franchises comes to a close this weekend. The Panthers won't know where their top minor league team will be based next season until later in the summer.
Rochester and the Panthers have been together since 2005 season but this divorce has been bubbling all season.
SATURDAY: CAPITALS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center
TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM 560
The series: Capitals lead 47-41-9
The game: The Capitals have clinched the Southeast Division title for a fourth straight season and should end up being the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year. The Caps were upset by eighth-seeded Montreal in the opening round of the 2010 playoffs. .-.-. Washington has won four straight – and 19 of 24 – including a 5-2 win against the Cats on Wednesday.
Florida Panthers To Finish Last in Eastern Conference, 28th Overall after 4-2 loss to Lightning ... Season Finale Saturday (Good Seats Still Available!)
LIGHTNING 4, PANTHERS 2