Both the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers came into game 79 looking for a boost. The Southeast Division leaders had been into extra time in four of their last five games until their loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, and now have the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres breathing down their neck.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings' dominance in the Central Division was dealt blows by the phenomenal success of the St. Louis Blues and the surging Nashville Predators, who handed the Wings their second straight defeat. Needing a victory to push them back into fourth place in the Western Conference before the final week of the regular season, Detroit received a welcome boost. Goaltender Jimmy Howard returned to the lineup, starting in his first game since March 19 for the afternoon tilt.
Scott Clemmensen got the call for the Panthers, giving Jose Theodore a night off, and the former Devils backup was solid in the net, though he received a heavy test by the home team. Indeed, the Panthers carried much of the play in the first period, drawing two consecutive minors early against Kyle Quincey and Drew Miller, though the Florida power play was unable to take advantage.
Detroit began to pull back into the period as time wound down, but the Panthers opened scoring when Kris Versteeg took a long lead pass deep in the Detroit zone. Playing a bit of catch with Stephen Weiss, the former Blackhawk found Tomas Fleischmann coming into the offensive zone, firing a cross-ice pass that Fleischmann teed up for a power slap shot that burned its way past Howard into the net.
In the second period, the Red Wings failed to capitalize on any of their three power-play opportunities, managing just 17 shots through 40 minutes of regulation, while the Panthers worked hard to keep Detroit away from the dangerous areas of the ice -- particularly when battling against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
The strategy worked, but the sheer depth of their opponents eventually broke the defensive stranglehold early in the third period. Jiri Hudler worked his way into the Panthers zone with Valteri Filppula, exploiting a Panthers line change and setting up a shot from the high slot. Clemmensen made a pad save, but the rebound kicked to the far boards, where Hudler recovered and fired a long shot that slid past Clemmensen to tie the game at 1-1, where it would stay through overtime.
Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Hudler gave Detroit a 2-1 advantage in the shootout, while Wojtek Wolski managed the Panthers' only shootout goal. With the win, the Red Wings sit in fourth place, a point up on Nashville as the battle for home ice draws near an end in the Western Conference. Florida is yet to clinch the East's Southeast Division, but leads Washington by three points. The teams will meet in the final game of the season for both clubs.