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Columbus Blue Jackets beat Florida Panthers 3-1 as playoff hopes emerge

SUNRISE, Fla. - Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped shot after shot on Saturday night, holding Columbus scoreless through two periods and much of the third.

However, the Blue Jackets never felt the game was lost and, with just minutes to go, Raffi Torres proved them right.

"I don't think at any point we thought the game was over. On the bench, we kept saying, 'It's going to come, it's going to come, it's going to come,"' said Torres, who scored twice late in the third to give the Blue Jackets a 3-1 victory.

Torres scored his first goal of the night with 2:46 remaining in the third. He tied it at 1 and ruined Vokoun's bid for his seventh shutout of the season.

Then, with just 1:33 left, Torres scored on a wrist shot to put Columbus up 2-1. Antoine Vermette added an empty-net goal with 19 seconds left.

"Look, we've been leaning on the same guys game in and game out, and some other guys came through tonight," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "And I think that's what good teams do, you get new heroes.

"That's exactly what happened today."

Rostislav Olesz scored his first goal since Nov. 1 for Florida, which lost for the fifth time in six games.

"I really thought we did a lot of things well tonight, other than win," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. "I don't have an answer. We're not putting up any white flags, there's a lot of hockey left."

Steve Mason made 22 saves for the Blue Jackets, playing in South Florida for the first time since a 5-4 overtime win over the Panthers on Jan. 14, 2006.

Vokoun stopped 34 shots.

It was an important game for both teams, who are each jockeying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.

The Blue Jackets have never made the playoffs since entering the NHL in 2000-01. With just a few weeks remaining, however, they seem poised to make their inaugural trip to the post season.

Columbus entered the game in sixth place in the Western Conference, and moved within three points of fifth-place Chicago with the win.

The Blue Jackets, coming off a 4-3 overtime win over Chicago on Wednesday, also set a franchise record for points in a season with 82, beating last season's mark of 80.

"This is huge right now," Torres said. "It shows a lot about our team. We just kind of stick with it. We're learning now how to win games."

The Panthers, who will end a five-game homestand Monday against Carolina, are ninth in the Eastern Conference, a point behind Montreal. They have not been to the playoffs since 2000.

"All losses sting," DeBoer said. "Obviously, the way we lost makes it sting a little more. But at the end of the day, a loss is a loss. We just have to keep moving forward."

Olesz put Florida up 1-0 with 4:29 left in the first period.

Mason couldn't control Nick Tarnasky's shot, which trickled between his pads and slowly moved across the crease.

Olesz, who missed 43 games this season and underwent surgery for a sports hernia earlier this year, fought off a Columbus defender to put the loose puck into the net.

Notes: Florida, which didn't manage a shot in the third period of Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Washington, didn't get a shot on goal until 5:38 was left in the first period Saturday. The shot was met with a round of applause from the BankAtlantic Centre crowd. ... Columbus RW Derek Dorsett left the game in the second period with an apparent injury, but returned to the ice in the same period.


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