ST. PAUL, Minn. – Jose Theodore and the Florida Panthers let a point slip away.
Trying to pull five points ahead of the Washington Capitals in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand and five to play, Florida led Minnesota by one in the final minute.
But the Wild, already eliminated from playoff contention, weren’t finished.
With Niklas Backstrom pulled from his net, Erik Christensen put home a rebound with 31 seconds left to send the game to overtime. Mikko Koivu scored 15 seconds into the extra session, handing the Panthers a 3-2 loss Thursday night.
“That’s a tough one,” Theodore said after Florida’s third overtime loss in its last four games. “We could’ve had two, probably should’ve had two. But you’ve got to forget about it.”
Kyle Brodziak also scored for the Wild, tying Dany Heatley for the team lead with 21 goals. Backstrom, playing for the first time since sustaining a groin injury March 1 in Montreal, stopped 25 shots.
Tomas Fleischmann had a goal and an assist for Florida.
“We haven’t taken the easy path all year long,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “It’s been an up and down season and we scratch and claw and all our games have been so close that sometimes we end up on the wrong side of it.”
Florida left winger Scottie Upshall opened the scoring on a power play at 13:27 of the second period. Brodziak tied it when he buried a rebound of his own shot following a Panthers’ turnover in their own end at 1:03 of the third period.
Florida regained the lead when Fleischmann scored his team-leading 25th goal of the season at 13:16 during a 4-on-3 advantage. But Tom Gilbert’s shot in the final minute deflected off Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell’s skate and then the left post, setting up Christensen’s tying goal.
“It hits a skate, hit the post, and he banged it in,” Theodore said. “We still get a big point, but when you’re 30 seconds away you want to get the win.”
Koivu scored on the first shot of overtime, splitting two defenders and sliding the puck past Theodore.
“You still have a lot to work for,” Gilbert said. “It’s tough not being in playoff spot or trying to get points to make the playoffs, but every game is still so important, especially the way we want to build our team and end on the right note.”
Theodore, Backstrom’s understudy last season, had 22 saves for the Panthers.
Florida can clinch the Atlantic Division with five points in its final five games, but has still yet to clinch a playoff berth. The Panthers, currently third in the playoff seeding, are four points behind No. 2 Boston with five games left for each team. Both clubs play three of their final five on the road, but Florida faces just one team currently in the playoff picture while the Bruins will take on three.
NOTES: Minnesota LW Jason Zucker, who agreed to a contract with the team Tuesday, made his NHL debut. Zucker was selected in the second-round (No. 59 overall) in the 2010 draft. … The Wild hosted more than 30 former Minnesota North Stars players as part of an alumni reunion, including Neal Broten, Lou Nanne and Jack Carlson. All former North Stars in attendance were introduced before the game. … Minnesota also honoured the AHCA Division II national champion University of Wisconsin-Stout women’s hockey team during the second period. … Two of the Panthers’ top college prospects, University of Minnesota forwards Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad, attended the game. Both will play in the NCAA Frozen Four next week in Tampa, Fla. … Upshall is fifth among active players in goals per game against the Wild (minimum 15 games) with eight in 16 contests. Only Corey Perry (0.58 goals per game), Bobby Ryan (0.56), Johan Franzen (0.54) and Jarome Iginla (0.52) are higher.