With the Washington Capitals' loss to Tampa Bay on Monday night, the Florida Panthers received an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot on home ice against the Winnipeg Jets. Needing two points to clinch both their first playoff berth in over ten years and the franchise's first-ever Southeast Division title, a crowd of over 17,000 fans came to cheer the team to the promised land.
From the drop of the puck, the Jets tried to rain on the parade, forcing Jose Theodore to make several early stops, and only the goalpost kept Blake Wheeler from putting the home team into an early hole.
Slowly working their way back to challenge Ondrej Pavelec and the Winnipeg defense, the Panthers drew a hooking call against Grant Clitsome at the midpoint of the period, and though the power play technically did not connect, Marco Sturm cleaned up the rebound of a Dimitri Kulikov shot off Pavelec's leg and into the open net shortly after the penalty had expired.
Before the Jets could regain their composure, Ed Jovanovski forced Chris Thorburn into a hooking call, keeping them off balance. Moving the puck around the Winnipeg zone once more, Brian Campbell walked the blue line before finding the perfect shooting lane. Unleashing a hard shot through the traffic, the attempt was redirected at the top of the crease by Kris Versteeg to open a two-goal lead in just under two minutes.
The Panthers held their lead through the end of the first period, then extended it to a 3-0 advantage in the opening minute of the second period thanks to Versteeg setting up Tomas Fleischmann with a fantastic cross-ice pass to the open side of the net.
Outshooting the Jets by a margin of 21 to six by the middle of the period, it seemed like the Panthers were set to complete their storybook season in fine style, but the Jets were ready to embrace the spoiler role following their elimination from the playoff race, and there was still plenty of game left to play.
Spencer Mahachek led a rush up ice late in the period with Evander Kane, breaking through and sending a last-second feed to the young scorer, who finished the opportunity with a tight wrist shot. The goal would mark be his 30th -- the first time the fourth-overall pick has broken that milestone in the NHL.
Things went from bad to worse for the Panthers with just over two minutes left in the period. Battling through a mad scrum around the net, Jose Theodore seemed to pull his team out of the fire, but his final kick save eventually went to the boards and up to the blue line, where Zach Bogosian coralled, loaded, and fired a blast that cut the former three-goal lead down to one going into the final period of regulation.
Just as the Panthers struck early in the second period, this time the Jets returned the favor. Captain Andrew Ladd went through center ice chasing a loose puck, then fired a lazy-looking shot that knuckled over the glove of Theodore before bouncing into the net.
The hits kept coming for the crowd at the Bank Atlantic Center when Mike Weaver accidentally cleared the puck over his own glass, taking a delay-of-game penalty. The Winnipeg power play would put themselves ahead for the first time when Brian Little fired a shot from one knee at the right faceoff circle that slid past Theodore's leg and into the net just before the four-minute mark.
The Panthers would fight their way back thanks to the cheers of their fans and good old-fashioned hard work. Fighting for every opportunity, the puck finally took a bounce their way when Tomas Kopecky fired a shot at the boards from almost the plane of the goal line and watched it slide in past Pavelec's stick-side shoulder with just under four minutes left in regulation.
Each team tried to capitalize in regulation, including a heartstopping moment where Fleischmann broke away with less than 30 seconds left, but was unable to bury the puck on perhaps his best chance of the night. With no answer after 60 minutes, the Panthers continued to attack in the early minutes of OT, trying to pick up the final point they so desperately needed.
Unfortunately, the final page in their storybook season will have to wait for another day. With the final minutes coming to a close, Blake Wheeler went deep into the Florida zone before setting up his Captain for another shot. Andrew Ladd fired a shot from the left faceoff dot that seemed to take Theodore by surprise and slid through the goaltender's legs, leaving the Panthers with two more opportunities to clinch, but a strong sense of having let a perfect opportunity slip away, particularly since their next matchup will come against the Washington Capitals on Thursday evening.