Florida 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Payback came a little late at BB&T Center on Saturday night, but it arrived nonetheless as the Florida Panthers did something they couldn’t do last April in the playoffs.

Beat the New Jersey Devils in overtime.

Shawn Matthias’s second goal tied the game with just 27 seconds remaining in regulation, and Dmitry Kulikov’s first goal of the year lifted the Panthers by the Devils, 3-2, in overtime at BB&T Center.

The Panthers lost Game 7 to New Jersey last year in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in double overtime, but in the Devils’ first visit since that season-ending night, Florida exacted a little revenge on New Jersey and future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur in front of 18,138 fans.

Down 2-1 late in the third period, Florida (11-19-6) pulled goalie Jacob Markstrom and skated 6-on-5 with the extra attacker. After Tomas Fleischmann’s shot from just inside the blue line ricocheted to Scottie Upshall, a backhanded pass from Upshall deflected off Brodeur. Standing all alone in front of Brodeur, Matthias netted his second goal to tie it at 2-2.

In overtime, Jonathan Huberdeau weakly misfired on a shot toward Brodeur. Kulikov, racing in 1-on-1, beat Brodeur to the loose puck, but the netminder poke-checked it away. A clearing attempt by Travis Zajac hit Brian Campbell, who kept the puck in the zone, whipped it cross-ice to Kulikov, and the Russian defenseman zipped a shot past Brodeur for the game-winner. Kulikov’s last goal was against Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2012.

It was only the Panthers’ second overtime win in the last two seasons, though the club did win a shootout against Buffalo on Thursday. Florida’s last overtime win was a 3-2 decision over the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18, 2011. In that Sunday matinee, Kris Versteeg scooped up a blocked shot off the stick of Stephen Weiss and beat Cam Ward for the goal.

Coach Kevin Dineen on Florida’s efforts against the Devils:

Matthias continued his hot streak, adding the two goals to give him 11 in his last 16 games and team-best 14 overall. Huberdeau’s pass from below the right circle went off Matthias’s skate and by Brodeur for a power-play tally in the first period. It was the fifth two-goal game of his career.

Matthias talks about his play:

Huberdeau, 19, recorded two assists to move him ahead of all rookies in scoring. His 25 points (13-12-25) put him one ahead of Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher. Huberdeau also has a three-game assist streak and five points in his last three games.

Ex-Florida forward Steve Bernier scored both goals for New Jersey (15-11-9) and has five goals in his last 11 games against his former club, including playoffs. Bernier, who played for current Devils coach Pete DeBoer with the Panthers, had gone 13 games without a goal. However, he tapped in a pass from Ryan Carter, who also played with Bernier in Florida, and later tipped in a shot by Henrik Tallinder for a 2-1 lead. It was Tallinder’s first game back after an 11-game absence.

Still stuck on a devilish 666 career wins, Brodeur was playing in back-to-back contests for the first time this year. He complained to officials about Upshall’s swing-and-miss with a high stick to get the puck in the closing seconds of regulation. But the officials ruled Upshall didn’t make contact, and the Florida winger then sent the backhander at Brodeur that led to the tying goal. Brodeur stands at 2-0-3 since his return.

The loss was a particularly difficult one for New Jersey, who could very easily have left the Sunshine State with four points instead of two if it had closed out either game in the last half-minute. The Devils seemingly had victory in hand Friday in Tampa, but the Lightning’s Alex Killorn scored with 15 seconds left to send it to overtime, where Tampa Bay came out victorious in a shootout. The situation was similar against the Panthers, who evened the game with 27 seconds left.

New Jersey currently slots seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, five points behind Toronto and four ahead of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, both with 35 points. Carolina has 34 while 11th-place Washington has 33.

Florida 5, Buffalo 4 (SO)

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom gave the Florida Panthers life in the shootout Thursday night. Mike Santorelli took it one step further.

Huberdeau tied the shootout session in the second round, goaltender Markstrom stopped three out of four Buffalo shots and Santorelli won the game by beating Sabres netminder Ryan Miller in the fourth round in Florida’s 5-4 victory to snap a four-game home losing streak before 17,044 fans at BB&T Center.

Jason Pominville scored on Markstrom in the shootout’s first shot, but Huberdeau, who scored his team-leading 13th goal in the third period, faked Miller and put a shot that appeared to travel along the goal line and not cross it, prompting the officials to call it no goal. However, a review showed the knob of Miller’s stick pushing the puck over the line entirely, and Huberdeau was awarded the marker to tie it at 1-1.

Drew Stafford, Shawn Matthias and Steve Ott all missed in attempts to potentially win the game before Santorelli stepped up. He skated in and completely deked Miller, who sprawled in the crease in a last-ditch effort to make the save. Santorelli moved to the right and easily flipped the game-winning shot over Miller — the Florida forward’s ninth shootout goal in 18 career attempts.

Florida made multiple-goal leads stand up against Carolina and the New York Rangers on its recent five-game road trip but couldn’t do the same against a Buffalo team that lost 2-1 at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Florida held a 2-0 edge in the first minute of the second period but saw the Sabres (13-16-5) erase the deficit against Markstrom.

The teams went back and forth in a frantic third period with Florida battling back twice to tie the game.

With the Panthers trailing 3-2, the red-hot Matthias left the penalty box and scored his second goal of the night and ninth in his last 15 games by forcing the puck off the stick of Kevin Porter right after Buffalo’s power play expired. Peter Mueller immediately fired on Miller, then Matthias scooped up the rebound and scored his career-high 12th to knot it at 3-3.

Marcus Foligno tipped in a shot by Jordan Leopold for a 4-3 Buffalo lead, but Mueller found Huberdeau streaking through the slot and fed the Florida rookie as the Panthers tied it yet again at the 13:51 mark. Huberdeau, who broke a nine-goal goal drought, leads all NHL rookies with 13 goals and also added an assist.

The Panthers (10-19-6) controlled much of the game’s early play and finally capitalized just under four minutes into the contest.

Huberdeau lost a faceoff to Tyler Ennis in the left circle in front of Miller, but he and linemate Peter Mueller outfought Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr for the puck behind the goal. The rookie gained control and passed to defenseman Tyson Strachan, who fired a long shot on Miller. Matthias corralled the juicy rebound, skated patiently through the low slot and beat Miller with a high shot.

Florida added another just 43 seconds into the second period after Ville Leino’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty carried over. Tomas Fleischmann put away a blind, backhand pass from Tomas Kopecky for a power-play goal, his eighth, and a 2-0 lead.

The Sabres took advantage of the remainder of the period, though, scoring three times in the last 18:34 to take a 3-2 lead into third.

Nathan Gerbe scored his fourth goal — his third against Florida — off a deflected shot beyond the right circle. Just over 13 minutes later, Dmitry Kulikov’s clearing attempt from behind Markstrom caromed off Ott. Andrej Sekera blasted a shot that beat Markstrom to tie the game at 2-2. Christian Ehrhoff’s shot deflected in off Drew Stafford to give the forward his fifth goal and Buffalo a 3-2 lead with only 56 seconds left in the period.

“I thought (we) were a little bit undeniable tonight,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “Even though we got down at the end of the second, we were down at times in the third period, I felt like there was a feeling on the bench that, you know what, we owed our fans here at home, we owed ourselves. We didn’t want to make it that entertaining, but we’ll take it.”

Mueller and Brian Campbell each had a pair of assists for Florida, who won the season series over Buffalo. Both Markstrom (4-7-1) and Miller (11-14-5) faced 40 shots and made 36 saves.

The Sabres’ lone win was a 4-3 shootout victory on Feb. 28 in South Florida while the Panthers won 4-3 on Super Bowl Sunday in Buffalo. The Panthers had not won at home since a 4-1 triumph over Winnipeg on March 5 yet won two out of five games on the road trip.

Before the game, Florida announced that team captain Ed Jovanovski would have hip surgery next Friday but also added the procedure wouldn’t be career threatening for the 36-year-old defenseman.

“Obviously, it’s Jovo’s decision,” said Florida general manager Dale Tallon. “He’s the one that has to make the final call on that. Nobody knows his body better than he does. I have every confidence that he will do whatever it takes to get back to playing. It’s been a tough year for all of us, but we’ll get through it and we’ll look forward to moving on and getting better.”

Game Day Preview: Florida at Toronto

By Bill Whitehead

Games 3 and 4 haven’t gone as well as the first two to kick off Florida’s season-high five-game road trip, which began a week ago in Carolina. Despite beating the Rangers, the end of the game was marred by the non-call on the cheapshot by Rick Nash on Tomas Kopecky. The Panthers couldn’t beat future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur often enough on Saturday night — not uncommon for a team visiting the Rock — and looked entirely out of synch on Long Island in a game where it seemed every pass was either ill-timed or just plain bad.

Tonight’s game in Toronto bears some similarity to the one in Raleigh. In that one Florida leaped out to a lead over Carolina and won 4-1. The Hurricanes arrived late the night before after a shootout loss at Madison Square Garden. The Panthers had better jump, were quicker and worked those areas to its advantage in beating goalie Dan Ellis. The Maple Leafs had to go through the same travel situation as Carolina in the last 24 hours.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, many in the NHL thought the club was either mad or genius in the offseason when it signed quirky but gifted unrestricted free agent Alexander Semin, ending the winger’s career with the Washington Capitals and countryman Alexander Ovechkin. Semin is widely viewed as a puzzle to most, but the one-year, $7 million deal Carolina signed him to was seen an overpaid gamble  — one that could pay off or blow up in GM Jim Rutherford’s face.

The signing has been a winner for the resurgent Canes, but the organization went all-in by re-signing Semin to a five-year, $35 million extension on Monday. That’s more than a gambling experiment; it provides the kind of cushion Semin can lean on and perhaps slip into some old bad habits like just floating on a shift and seemingly not caring. He’s proven everyone wrong this year, but can he do it over the next half-decade? If I’m a GM, I wouldn’t count on a player as unreliable as Semin to win my $35 million wager for me.

But back to Toronto and the game tonight at the Air Canada Centre.

The Maple Leafs are coming off a grueling home-and-home with Boston, which concluded Monday night in the Bruins’ 3-2 shootout win. Toronto had tough two games full of fights, minor skirmishes and good hits. The club got back to Ontario late, and like Carolina seven days ago, the Leafs will have some tired legs, bruises and fatigue to show for that series. The Panthers will need to grab a lead early and keep the pressure on.

I expect Florida to continue its gritty play, be in the game like it has been in its previous four and come away with a win to finish the road swing at 3-2-0 before returning home to face Buffalo. The hard work on the road trip has been too good not to have a positive return.

BAD FIRST TIME: Five weeks ago at BB&T Center, Toronto finished off Florida, 3-0, in a poor performance by the Cats that brought to an end a dreadful four-game homestand. In that stretch of games, Florida wasted late two-goal leads against Washington and Tampa Bay in overtime losses, plus lost 1-0 to Montreal in the extra session. Former Cornell goaltender Ben Scrivens blanked Florida, which fell to 4-7-4, including stopping Alex Kovalev in a 1-on-1 chance after a nifty pass from Jonathan Huberdeau. Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens posted his second straight shutout by stopping 37 shots by Florida.

MARK-STRONG: Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom has been standing strong and displaying some top-notch goaltending lately. The Swedish netminder made a career-high 44 saves in a win over the Rangers, topping his 40-save effort at Montreal on Oct. 24, 2011. In his last three starts, Markstrom has stopped 111 of 114 shots on goal, a .973 save percentage.

STAT THAT MATTERS: Florida is 13-4-3 in its last 20 games against the Maple Leafs and won all four games against Toronto last season.

Florida (9-18-6, 24 pts.) at Toronto Maple Leafs (17-12-4, 38 pts.)
Tues., Mar. 26, 7 p.m.
Air Canada Centre — Toronto, Ont.

BY THE NUMBERS

FLA                     vs.           TOR

18.1% (17th)        Power play         18.1% (16th)
74.3% (30th)        Penalty kill        85.4% (5th)
2.33  (26th)        Goals per game   3.00  (6th)
3.48  (30th)        Goals against    2.76  (18th)
0.63  (30th)        5-on-5 goals F/A 1.03  (16th)
49.4% (20th)        Faceoffs         50.5% (15th)
29.6  (12th)        Shots per gm     27.2  (25th)
30.8  (23rd)        Shots vs. per    31.8  (26th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 24 points in 33 games: 34.9 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida/NHL Network, 7 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM/ESPN 760 AM/106.3 FM, 7 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

Shanahan Swings, Misses in Nash-Kopecky Ruling

By Bill Whitehead

Among all of the sportswriting gigs I get to do — from hockey to preps to pro baseball to college football and many others — the sport that started my career was auto racing, almost exclusively NASCAR. In fact, I’ve covered very few other forms of motorsports than the stock car racing governed by NASCAR.

I got my feet wet in the late 1990s and was fortunate enough to cover the 1998 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt won an emotional race. I jumped into the deep end in the early 2000s by chronicling about one-third of the schedule, mostly at great Southern tracks like Martinsville, Darlington, Charlotte and Rockingham, plus the Florida venues. Now I sit on the concrete edge with my feet submerged in the water as I’ve scaled back my schedule to include just the Florida races and an occasional one or two more.

After the lack of any form of punishment to Rick Nash after his hit on Tomas Kopecky in Florida’s game against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, I’m convinced the NHL has become quite like NASCAR in the way it metes out its punishment.

If you’re no fan of NASCAR, you’re missing some top-shelf crummy rulings. Most recently, driver Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for criticizing its new Generation 6 style car, which it invested a ton of money in producing. In 2007, Kyle Busch won at Bristol in the first race featuring the Car of Tomorrow, was asked his opinion of the car and replied, “It sucks.” Mind you, he said this from Victory Lane, where he should have been happy and not so controversial. The punishment for criticizing the COT car that was spawned by numerous deaths in NASCAR, including Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr.? Nothing. Not a penny, not a point in the standings.

That’s just the very tip of NASCAR’s bad governance — and don’t get me started on its nonsensical, inexplicable use of caution flags. I’m not going to spend more time detailing questionable calls. If you need more proof, just email me or DM me on Twitter. I’m up to about one million examples.

On Friday, NHL Department of Player Safety chief Brendan Shanahan made a terribly bad decision and looked like NASCAR in the process. He let Nash, a top-line superstar in the league, get away with a hit that most in the league would likely have been suspended over. Frustrated as his team struggled against the last-place Florida Panthers, Nash left his feet to come across and hit winger Kopecky in the back of his head with his left elbow. Shanahan told Nash it was “a rotten hit” but also said he didn’t think the hit was to the head.

Decide for yourself:

Right now while watching this Washington-Winnipeg game, I can’t help but think of Patrice Cormier’s hard-hitting (and cheap-shotting) history as his name is mentioned by the Jets’ announcers. The hit below in January of 2010 resulted in Cormier being suspended for the remainder of the season and post-season while playing for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies:

What would that hit warrant in Shanahan’s NHL today? Likely, the answer would depend on who did the hitting. Top line player or fourth line grinder? Respectively speaking, I’d expect that number to be ridiculously low to relatively high. The Nash hit is exactly what the league is trying to get away from, and frankly, it was probably at least equal to or maybe worse than Joffrey Lupul’s on Victor Hedman the night before in Toronto. And if the situation had been reversed and Kopecky had leveled the high-paid Nash, No. 82 would have been gone for a few games at least.

If someone can explain the decisions on what warrants a suspension and what doesn’t, please let me and the rest of guys know. —  Joffrey Lupul on Twitter Friday night

Lupul doesn’t know. The players in general don’t know. Coaches don’t know. Fans don’t know.

Just like with NASCAR, it’s starting to look like Shanahan doesn’t know.

Game Day in the Big Apple: Panthers at Rangers

By Bill Whitehead

Stuck on seven wins and 20 points for what seemed like an eternity, the Florida Panthers produced Tuesday’s total team effort in a streak-snapping 4-1 win in Raleigh over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Panthers displayed a relentless offensive attack that still missed some finish over the first 40 minutes, strong defense and goaltending, and excellent play on special teams, which included killing off a double-minor penalty and scoring two power-play goals. The only thing missing was Jacob Markstrom recording the first shutout by a Florida goalie, but it was a fine effort overall with some unusually good results in a building that hasn’t been Cat-friendly.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, didn’t follow the blueprint set out by Florida GM Dale Tallon but did make major acquisitions of their own last offseason. GM Jim Rutherford traded for Jordan Staal at last year’s draft in Pittsburgh while the ex-Penguin was getting married. He then took a gamble on Alexander Semin — a one-year, $7 million bet on the quirky Russian winger — and both have paid dividends. Semin is second in scoring and has a team-high 22 assists, while Staal is fourth in scoring.

Now, Carolina is getting a dose of what Florida has fought all year — mounting injuries. Defenseman Justin Faulk was injured Tuesday and will miss 2-4 weeks with an MCL strain. Carolina, also without starting goalie Cam Ward, had problems in calling up a defenseman from Charlotte since both Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan are hurt; instead, they brought up Brett Bellemore for his first NHL recall. With Winnipeg winning and Carolina losing, the Jets reassumed the top spot in the Southeast Division, while the Eric Staal-led team has struggled in an 0-3-1 stretch. Carolina will have a tough fight on its hands with the Jets the rest of the way.

But enough Hurricane talk. Time for Florida to take over the Big Apple and Tortorellaville:

THE NEW GUYS:  When Eric Selleck made his debut in Florida’s win over Carolina, it marked the sixth time this year a Panther had made his NHL debut, matching the number put up by Tampa Bay. Two of the Panthers’ first-timers have stuck around for good — Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore — while Mike Caruso, Quinton Howden, Jon Rheault and Selleck have spent more time at the club’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio.

DEEP-SIXING THE SIX:  Florida broke its six-game losing streak (0-5-1) in the win over the Hurricanes, who the Panthers have struggled with historically but won’t face as a divisional foe next season. The losing streak dated back to March 5 against Winnipeg, also a 4-1 win but at home. In that one, Shawn Matthias scored his fifth goal of the season on a wicked inside-out move on defenseman Mark Stuart, and Matthias added his ninth, his first power-play marker, against Carolina when he shoved in a rebound off a shot by Filip Kuba.

GET USED TO IT:  Florida will face extensive travel next year when it shifts out of the Southeast Division and becomes part of a division that includes Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and the three eastern Canadian teams clubs. Currently in the second game of a season-high five-game road trip, the Panthers will have traveled approximately 1,960 miles when it returns from next Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs.

STAT OF THE DAY:  Florida, ranked 24th in the league in scoring, broke open a scoreless game by scoring four times in the third period against the Hurricanes. It was the third time this season the Panthers have accomplished at least a four-goal period, also connecting four times in the first period in the season-opener against Carolina and five times in a 6-3 win over Winnipeg on Jan. 31.

HOT CATS:  Matthias, who had flu-like symptoms and rested all day in Raleigh, has six goals in his last 10 games. Tomas Kopecky, who assisted on Tomas Fleischmann’s goal, now has 13 points (9-4-13) in his last 17, while Marcel Goc has scored in consecutive games for the first time this year.

Florida (8-16-6, 22 pts.) at New York Rangers (15-12-2, 32 pts.)
Thurs., Mar. 21, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden — New York City, N.Y.

BY THE NUMBERS

FLA                     vs.           NYR

18.2% (15th)        Power play       14.3% (26th)
73.4% (30th)        Penalty kill     83.2% (9th)
2.43  (24th)        Goals per game   2.31  (27th)
3.63  (30th)        Goals against    2.34  (4th)
0.63  (30th)        5-on-5 goals     1.07  (12th)
49.6% (20th)        Faceoffs         51.2% (9th)
30.3  (9th)         Shots per gm     30.0  (10th)
30.4  (23rd)        Shots vs. per    28.8  (16th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 22 points in 30 games: 35.2 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

Brennan Deal Could Be a Steal

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — It took all of one period of play on Saturday night — though really it was just a shift or two — for one of my colleagues to make a spot-on assessment of new Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan. He had seen, he said, more jump, promise and good play out of Brennan in 20 minutes than he had in Keaton Ellerby’s entire tenure with the Panthers.

That’s not a complete slam on Ellerby, but it’s a good start. While he was another good guy in the room, Ellerby came up short on the ice. If size were the greatest attribute in being a successful NHL defenseman, Ellerby would have been a top pairing blueliner. But he wasn’t. He never quite fulfilled the potential as a first-round selection should, and there was no sign that was going to change. The 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft, Ellerby wasn’t terrible enough to heap blame upon, but he also never excited anyone or took advantage of the opportunities presented his way.

So GM Dale Tallon decided to shed what wasn’t working and bring in someone whom coach Kevin Dineen had achieved success with in the past. Some credit also goes to assistant GM Mike Santos, who said he’s been after Brennan for a year.

Florida acquired Brennan from Buffalo on Friday for a fifth-round pick, the one obtained from Los Angeles in the Ellerby trade. Essentially, the deal is Ellerby for Brennan, who was selected by the Sabres in the same draft as Ellerby, only in the 2nd round (31st overall). The Willingboro, N.J., native apparently didn’t fit into the plans of Buffalo and GM Darcy Regier, who’s overseeing a well-paid team that’s a prolific mess right now.

I mean, really, who would want a 6-foot-1, 213-pound puck-moving defenseman with a big shot and offensive upside who jumps up into the play and can score, as evident by the 16 goals and 30 points he scored in 52 games for Rochester last year? Or the 15 markers he put up in 2010-2011 while playing in his second season at Portland in the AHL for Dineen?

The media may have been surprised by Brennan’s play, especially if compared to Ellerby’s efforts or the defense as a whole this season, but Dineen didn’t get all teenage-girl gushy over Brennan — despite him putting a shot on net and cleaning up a loose puck a few seconds later to begin Florida’s three-goal rally, posting four shots, recording 23:42 of ice time, showing strong play and an extraordinary sense of belonging and blending in with his new teammates, especially on the power play.

“That’s my expectations of him as a player and that’s the level he’s set. That’s what we’ll expect until our season ends,” Dineen said, plainly.

This isn’t a make-or-break deal for the Panthers right now and was merely a blip on the NHL news scene Friday. And it will have little effect on this season. But next year, maybe two seasons from now the question might be, “What did the Cats give again for Brennan?” At first, you’ll want to quote the deal as it read Friday and say, “A fifth-round pick,” but then you’ll catch yourself, connect the dots and sigh, “Keaton Ellerby.”

The tell-tale sign this is a good trade? Most Buffalo fans on Twitter and on stories’ comments sections think it’s a horrible trade. They absolutely hate it, viewing it as a gift to the Panthers. That’s encouraging enough right now in this monumentally dismal season.

Here’s Brennan talking about his debut in Florida’s 4-3 loss to the Islanders:

And Brennan here leveling Ryan Hamilton while playing for Rochester:

T.J. Brennan. It stands for Terrance James, but Florida fans will have plenty of time to commit that to memory because Brennan’s a keeper and here to stay.

Gamer: New York Islanders 4, Florida Panthers 3

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — New York’s Casey Cizikas spoiled a spirited Florida comeback and a sparkling debut by a new Panther.

The Florida Panthers rallied from three goals down in the third period to tie the New York Islanders only to see Cizikas send a shot past goaltender Scott Clemmensen to lead New York to a 4-3 win at the BB&T Center on Saturday night.

The Panthers (7-16-6), losers of six straight, fell behind 3-0 after 40 minutes but proceeded to go on a goal-scoring tear, tallying three times in a span of 1:43 to ignite the crowd of 17,627 fans who had little to cheer about through two periods.

New Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan, acquired from Buffalo for a 2013 fifth-round draft pick on Friday, punched in a rebound in the low slot around  a scrum to make it 3-1. Marcel Goc scored 34 second seconds later below the right circle off a diagonal pass from Tomas Fleischmann in the left corner.

The Panthers tied it 69 seconds later when Jack Skille drove hard to the net and put a shot on New York goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. Mike Santorelli crashed in and put away the rebound, completing the comeback.
“We threw a lot of energy out there and finally got some production,” said Florida coach Kevin Dineen. “We saw some highs and lows. We just need to see a more complete game.”
The Islanders (13-12-3) continued their strong push to return to the postseason for the first in six seasons. New York last made the playoffs in the 2006-2007 season, falling to the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The team sits in ninth in the East, just two points behind Carolina.

The club started its road trip through the Sunshine State with a 2-0 win at Tampa on Thursday, again with the 37-year-old Nabokov in goal. The also welcomed the return of Colin McDonald, who missed the Lightning game due to illness. McDonald recorded the primary assist by setting up Cizikas’s game-winner with a slick pass from behind Clemmensen’s cage. Kyle Okposo, Radek Martinek and Brad Boyes scored the New York goals that led to the 3-0 advantage.
Nabokov stopped Skille on Florida’s best scoring chances. He made a sprawling glove save 8:42 into the second period as Skille tried to go high on him. Nabokov matched that by stuffing Skille’s backhander with three minutes left in the period. Nabokov finished with 27 saves and ran his record to 13-8-3.

Skille talks about the loss and being robbed by Nabokov’s glove in the second period:

Dineen said the bar was set high by Brennan, who played two seasons for the Florida coach at Portland in the American Hockey League. In his first game as a Panther, Brennan logged 23:42 of ice time and had four shots on goal.

“That’s my expectations of him as a player and that’s the level he’s set. That’s what we’ll expect until our season ends,” Dineen said.
It was the sixth straight game Florida trailed at least 2-0 after the first period. The Panthers also trailed 4-0 after the first against Washington on March 7.