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Jokinen, Panthers fading from playoff race - again

SUNRISE, Fla. - Of all the players in the Florida Panthers locker room, none is more familiar with the frustration that comes from sitting out the postseason than Olli Jokinen.

The Panthers' captain and career scoring leader has played in 551 games with Florida - and never reached playoffs.

During an eight-season NHL career, Jokinen has played more games without making the playoffs - 707 - than any other active player. And with the Panthers stumbling into March, Jokinen and his teammates could spend yet another postseason on the sidelines.

"This," Jokinen said after Florida's latest loss, "is not fun."

A loss Wednesday to Toronto left Florida 13th in the Eastern Conference with 64 points, seven points out of eighth place.

"When you put yourself in a position like this, you can't afford too many mistakes," defenceman Jay Bouwmeester said.

The Panthers have lost five of six games, including their most lopsided defeat of the season, a 5-0 loss Sunday to the New York Rangers. Four of the losses, including Wednesday's, have come after the Panthers had two-goal leads. Three of those collapses came in the third period.

"It's not fun when you're not winning," right-winger Nathan Horton said, "especially when you need the points and you need to win. And it's been tough the last little bit."

Florida led 3-2 on Wednesday before Toronto's Mats Sundin scored with 1:08 left. The Panthers wound up losing 4-3 in a shootout.

"There's nothing we can do about the past. We just have to look forward," Jokinen said. "You can't change the past."

Jokinen's probably right to not focus on the Panthers' past, because they have a history of falling short.

Since a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, Florida has only won one playoff game. The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since being swept by New Jersey in the first round in 2000.

Jokinen came to the team from the Islanders in June 2000. He has 30 goals and 31 assists in 66 games this season, but it hasn't been enough to keep Florida in contention.

"It would be great to get in the playoffs for (Jokinen) and everyone in this organization," left-winger David Booth said. "I'm sure he wants it just as much as everyone else."

Jokinen has only scored one goal since his skate accidentally cut teammate Richard Zednik's neck Feb. 10 in a loss to Buffalo. That started a stretch where the Panthers have lost six of eight.

"We just sort of caught a bad stretch at a wrong time," Bouwmeester said. "If you look at throughout the year, there's been times where we could have gotten over that hump and put ourselves in a lot better position and never been able to do that."

Coach Jacques Martin said three deals shortly before this week's trade deadline left Florida poised to make a playoff push. The Panthers acquired left-winger Chad Kilger and defencemen Wade Belak and Karlis Skrastins.

In addition, expected back soon from injuries are Stephen Weiss, Radek Dvorak, Jozef Stumpel, Mike Van Ryn and Bryan Allen.

"We're going to have some people coming back," Martin said. "We have people here that we'll get back to our lineup and help us be a strong team."


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