UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The Panthers run to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade got a much needed boost this weekend.
Florida, which hasn't been in the postseason an NHL record 11 straight years, won consecutive road games for the first time since early December as it scored three times in the second period to beat the host Islanders 4-1 at Nassau Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers win on Long Island gave them all four available points during a rare matinee weekend in the New York area. Florida beat the Devils in Newark 3-1 on Saturday afternoon.
“It was a good weekend for us,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “It's satisfying. We went out played hard and were rewarded for it.''
The last time Florida won consecutive road games was Dec. 8 at Boston. The Panthers went into a slide after that, however, going 8-9-7 before snapping off three straight wins.
“It sure has been nice to get a couple goals here,'' said Kris Versteeg, whose team is 3-0 against the Isles this season. “When the team is going and everyone is going, the job is so much easier. That's the way we've been going lately. The team is winning, that's all that matters.''
With the win – and Washington's 3-2 loss down the road at Madison Square Garden – the Panthers now hold a four-point lead on the Capitals atop the Southeast Division with a four-game homestand kicking off Wednesday against Ottawa. The Capitals visit Sunrise on Friday night.
Florida has won five of seven since the All-Star break.
“We struggled a little bit but now it's crunch time and it's never too late to start doing the right things,'' said Jose Theodore, who was back in net for the Panthers after missing 13 of the past 15 games with a sore knee. “Winning back-to-back games on the road is always huge.''
Theodore showed a little rust as Florida continued its trend of giving up early goals. Frans Nielsen scored on New York's first shot 3:35 into the game as the Panthers surrendered the opening goal within the first four minutes of a game in four straight road games.
Yet as was the case on Saturday, the 1-0 deficit didn't deflate the Panthers as they came back to win.
Before Saturday, the Panthers had won just one of their past 14 in which the opposition scored first.
The Panthers evened the score with 5:03 left in the first when defenseman Tyson Strachan took a feed after Marcel Goc won a faceoff deep in the Islanders zone and whipped the puck past starter Evgeni Nabokov.
The goal was Strachan's first in 75 NHL games through parts of four seasons.
“Giving up the first goal hurts, but we came back quick and got one to go in off the post and we rolled from there,'' Strachan said. “I thought that [first NHL goal] was never going to come, but one had to roll in there eventually. It was a great draw by Goc and he teed it up perfectly. I just closed my eyes and let it fly.''
Florida really opened things up in the third with Tomas Fleischmann kicking things off by knocking a crisp pass from Versteeg past Nabokov at 4:17 of the period. Then, Versteeg fired a feed from Fleischmann from 40 feet out on a power play. The goal was Versteeg's 22nd of the year, tying a career-high through just 53 games.
Jack Skille – playing for the first time since Jan. 21 – made it 4-1 by scoring when spinning after taking a Shawn Matthias pass off a faceoff and whipping it past Nabokov.
Al Montoya took the net to start the third and stopped all four shots faced. Theodore, now 2-0 against the Islanders this season, gave up one goal in two starts at the Coliseum this season after shutting the Islanders out on opening night. Theodore stopped 26 shots on Sunday.
“It's good to be back out there,'' Theodore said. “I only had a couple of practices, so I was a little rusty. You like to get a couple of easy shots to get the feel of the puck, but their first four were quality chances. I didn't start the way I wanted to, but I didn't panic and the team played a heck of a game in front of me.''
() Defenseman Colby Robak, 21, made his NHL debut for the Panthers on Sunday as he replaced the injured Jason Garrison in the lineup. Garrison apparently hurt his foot when struck by a puck Saturday against the Devils.
Although general manager Dale Tallon wouldn't confirm the nature of the injury, he did say Garrison will have an MRI on Monday in South Florida. “I don't think it's serious,'' Tallon said. When asked if Garrison hurt his foot or ankle, Tallon laughed. “It's lower body,'' he said.
() Panthers alternate governor Bill Torrey was shown on the center scoreboard during the second period and drew warm applause from the fans. Torrey is known as the architect of the Islanders four Stanley Cup championship teams from 1980-83.