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Bad News Buffalo ... Panthers Mantra: We played well ... Reality: Good, Not Good Enough ... Playoff Push? Setback More Like It

Not going to get into the whole thing about what happened tonight, anyone who watched or looked at the scoresheet can figure that out. This was a devastating loss for the Panthers, although the wings in the locker room smelled so good a few guys seemed to get over it real quick.

And I've never seen the scratched players escape a postgame locker room as fast as tonight's trio of guys did. And I sure don't blame them.

Speaking of blame, coach Pete DeBoer had plenty for goalie Tomas Vokoun, even though a couple of those goals were flukey. But the one that tied it sure wasn't.

Anyway, big game tomorrow in Philly. Will be interesting to see what happens.

Here's the raw version of my game story tonight. I know it takes a lot of time to get these things on line.


Or not.


BUFFALO -- It had been a good 10 minutes. Tomas Vokoun had already removed his equipment, showered and put on his dress clothes.

   Yet the Florida goalie still hadn't had enough time to fathom what just

   The Panthers have had more than their share of third period meltdowns in their
history, but Wednesday's was one that could be come legendary. Buffalo, a team on
the cusp of being eliminated from the playoff race, gained new life by scoring
four goals in the third period to beat the Panthers 5-3 at HSBC Arena.

   Florida led 3-1 before the Sabres scored three goals within two-plus minutes.

   "We were in control of the game," said Vokoun, his eyes fixed on a nearby
wall. "This is a tough loss for us. I still don't realize what really

   The Panthers have eight games remaining and are two points out of the final
playoff spot, but this team looks nowhere ready for primetime nor for the glare
of the postseason.

   Instead of driving forward for a postseason berth, Florida is pushing back.
The Panthers have lost eight of their past 10. Buffalo team, which has lost six of eight, pulled
to within three of Florida and five of No. 8 Montreal.

   Both of Buffalo's wins during its spate of mediocrity came against Florida.
The Panthers lost three of four to the Sabres this season.

  "We shouldn't lose that game, not up 3-1," said Nathan Horton. "It's
definitely disappointing, but we're not out of it. We still have games. It's
definitely tough. No one is happy. We play [Thursday] but it doesn't get any
easier. ''

   Sabres coach Lindy Ruff afterward that Florida's character will be questioned.
That's a given, considering the team has coughed up third period leads and
eventually lost in four of its past eight games.

   "We need saves at critical points and we didn't get one tonight," coach Pete
DeBoer said. "That's the bottom line. It's not devastating because we played
well and we played hard. You can't let it be devastating, but your best players
have to be your best and your goalie has to close the door when you're in that
situation. He didn't. I'm the first person to point the finger at myself, but he
has to close the door."

   The Panthers were looking good in the third period, going in up 2-1.

   Florida extended its lead 3:25 into the period when Michael Frolik took a shot
and his stick broke. The soft shot hit goalie Mikael Tellqvist's stick and
bounced out; Florida's Brett McLean was in the middle of it and had a chance to
hit the puck but didn't. Instead the loose puck hit Buffalo's Henrik Tallinder's
glove and over the goalie.

   Frolik was credited with his 19th goal of the season, a goal that may have
been Florida's luckiest of the season.

   The Panthers ended up paying the karma police with interest for that one.

   Moments after Richard Zednik took a puck to the face off a hard slapshot from
teammate Cory Stillman (Zednik returned a few shifts after leaving the ice),
Jason Pominville deftly deflected a shot Tallinder released from just inside the
blue line.

   DeBoer didn't have a problem with that goal, as Pominville twisted his stick
and backhanded the puck past Vokoun. It wasn't as fluky as Frolik's goal, but
close. DeBoer definitely had a problem with the next one.

   Less than a minute later, Clarke MacArthur (who would later fight with Stephen
Weiss during a ice-wide brawl) slid through the Florida defense by getting the
puck past Jay Bouwmeester and beating Karlis Skrastins before unleashing a shot
that went between Vokoun's legs.

   Just 76 seconds later, the Sabres took their first lead of the night when Tim
Connolly's shot deflected off Bouwmeester's stick and past Vokoun.

   "We need a big save at a critical time in the third period to win a game,"
said DeBoer. "I don't think we've gotten it lately. It's that simple."

   Buffalo outshot Florida 21-9 in the third, ending the comeback bid with Maxim
Afinogenov's empty net shot with 31.2 seconds left.

   Just as Afinogenov shot the puck, he was hit by Nathan Horton and Keith
Ballard, setting off a brawl between all involved. The biggest bouts came from
Ballard and Craig Rivet, with Weiss and MacArthur getting some licks in. After
being broken up, Weiss wanted some more, but the refs got in the middle and kept
Round 2 from going.

   The Panthers will need that fighting spirit Thursday night when they play at

   "This is really tough, this is brutal," said McLean, who scored Florida's
first goal. "We're playing the right way. We're still in it, but we've given up
a lot of points this past week which is frustrating. But we have to look