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Florida Panthers Don't Get Storybook Night -- As Usual ... Cats 5-4 OT Loss to Jets Sets Up Huge Tilt in D.C. v Caps ... FLA gives up 3-0 Lead in Loss to Jets

FlatBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

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Stephen Weiss should have been in the Panthers locker room after Tuesday's game celebrating not only his birthday, but his team's first trip to the postseason in over a decade. 

Instead of wearing a new division championship hat and t-shirt, Weiss slumped in his locker stall in full uniform long after most of his teammates had stripped down and left. 

Florida's 5-4 overtime loss to visiting Winnipeg brought the Panthers one point closer to that elusive playoff spot. It just feels so much further away.

“We haven't made things easy for ourselves all year,'' said Weiss, who broke into the league with the Panthers 10 years ago on Tuesday as a 19-year-old and hoped to hit the playoff milestone on his 29th birthday. 

“We're following that trend and it sets up for a good one in Washington. We couldn't have asked for a better start but we need to be mentally sharp and keep it up. We let them back into the game. They had nothing to lose, they played loose.''

The Panthers, who haven't been to the playoffs an NHL record 10 straight seasons, can clinch their first Southeast Division championship in franchise history with one point in its final two games.

Florida holds a four-point lead on Washington in the division and now visits the Capitals with much on the line for both teams.

It shouldn't have come to this.

The Panthers led the summer-bound Jets 3-0 past the midway point of the second period only to see Winnipeg score four unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead. Florida finally stopped the bleeding with 3:53 left when Tomas Kopecky scored and ended up going to overtime. 

Andrew Ladd, one of the Jets who moved north when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated, scored with 1:48 left in overtime to force the Panthers celebration to another night. Well, at least the Panthers hope that's how it works out. 

The hats and t-shirts will meet the Panthers in Washington. It remains to be seen whether they are needed or not.

“It's hard to express the disappointment,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “There is a little shock by all of us, a little surprise that the game got away from us and we didn't play that way for 60 minutes. We had a great home crowd and we fed off that enthusiasm early.''

The Panthers, who have now lost seven of eight games, looked loose yet focused before Tuesday's game. Getting a point in a hard-fought shootout loss Sunday to Detroit appeared to have done wonders to the team's psyche as they came out Tuesday filled with speed and energy. 

With what was at stake and with what the Panthers organization has been through the past decade, there's little argument Tuesday was the biggest game since the franchise moved north from Miami back in 1998. The Panthers didn't disappoint at the start as Marco Sturm knocked in a loose puck 12:03 in for a 1-0 lead.

Florida made it 2-0 before the opening break when Kris Versteeg deflected a shot from Tomas Fleischmann that was Versteeg's first goal in 16 games. 

Fleischmann's wicked shot from the right circle 25 seconds into the second gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead – and it looked as if the playoffs were calling.Only, as Weiss said, nothing comes easy for the Panthers.

Evander Kane scored first with 6:45 left in the second before Zach Bogosian walked in on Jose Theodore four minutes later. 

The Jets tied it 53 seconds into the third before taking the first lead at 3:45 of the period on Bryan Little's goal. Florida desperately tied to try it but didn't do so until Kopecky flew up a hard-angle shot from just outside the goal line with 3:53 left.

Fleischmann almost won it in regulation when he picked off a puck deep in the Florida zone and raced up the ice on a breakaway. Ondrej Pavelec stopped it and the Panthers went into overtime. 

Florida outshot the Jets 4-2 in the overtime, but the final shot did the damage. With Buffalo rallying to beat Toronto in overtime, the Panthers hope of simply clinching a playoff spot was also put on ice. That will also have to wait.

“We came out strong and kind of let them back in the game. We needed to stomp on their throats,'' Ed Jovanovski said. “We have to do it the hard way now. It's on us. The opportunity was there to wrap things up. We'll go into Washington and see what happens.''

() Dineen said he thought about replacing Theodore after the fourth goal scored yet decided against it. 

“He's been our go-to guy all year,'' Dineen said of Theodore. “A goaltender, when you have a hiccup, wants to be the guy to stand tall.''

() Mike Santorelli, Krys Barch, Jarred Smithson and Keaton Ellerby were Florida's healthy scratches on Thursday as the Panthers ended up winning three of six against the Jets this season. 

 

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