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Mid-season swoon could doom Panthers and playoff aspirations

SUNRISE, Fla. - In 2000, back when the Florida Panthers fancied themselves Stanley Cup contenders, they were swept in four games by New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.

It turns out those were the good old days. The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since, and their current mid-season swoon suggests the drought may not end this year.

A loss Tuesday at home against Pittsburgh was the Panthers' fifth in sixth games. They've lost four in a row at home. They look - and sound - like a team headed the wrong direction.

"I don't think there's any spark around here right now," said captain Olli Jokinen, the Panthers' all-time scoring leader. "I'm running out of answers. Maybe you should go ask somebody you haven't asked yet, because I don't know what to say, seriously. It's embarrassing."

This is Jokinen's seventh season with Florida, and his 684 career NHL games include none in the playoffs. The Panthers haven't won a post-season game since 1997.

Until recently, 2007-08 looked to be a breakthrough season. Newcomer Tomas Vokoun quickly proved himself one of the league's best goaltenders, surprising winger David Booth solidified a spot on the second line, and Florida played much better on the road than in recent years.

But the season has been full of erratic stretches - three losses followed by three wins, or four wins followed by three losses. The pattern has kept the Panthers close to .500, and the defeat against Pittsburgh left them at 19-21-3.

"I don't like it," said winger Radek Dvorak. "Nobody likes it."

Florida's 41 points in Wednesday's standings were 12th in the Eastern Conference. The top eight make the playoffs.

"We're at a point where we can go one of two ways," centre Stephen Weiss said. "We can come together and get this thing back on track where we had it before, or we can go the way we're going.

"I think we have a group of guys that'll get upset and push themselves and get this thing back on track."

Scoring is the Panthers' primary problem; only three teams have fewer goals than their 105. Florida needs more productivity from centre Nathan Horton (12 goals), forward Jozef Stumpel (six goals), winger Rostislav Olesz (five goals) and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester (eight assists).

The Panthers were shut out Saturday by Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin, who was recently recalled from the AHL, then were unable to score against him Tuesday until only four minutes remained.

"There's only one puck, but if you don't want it, if you don't hold it, if you don't create anything ..." Jokinen said. "It took us 116 minutes to score one goal against a guy who has been in the minors all year."

Coach Jacques Martin broke up his top line Tuesday, and centre Jokinen teamed with Brett McLean and Richard Zednik. They failed to score.

"You're definitely not winning games if you don't score goals," defenceman Bryan Allen said. "We've got to find ways. We've got to get into the dirty areas and grind it out and play simple, put the puck on the net, get dirty goals. It doesn't have to be pretty always."

Numb to years of ugly hockey, South Floridians have yet to catch playoff fever. The arena was half-full for Tuesday's game despite the presence of the league's top drawing card, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who had a goal and an assist.

The home team, meanwhile, dug its hole a little deeper in the chase for a post-season berth.

Last year it took 93 points to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. If that's the case again this season, Florida will need 52 points in the final 39 games, starting Thursday at Atlanta.

In other words, the Panthers will need their best stretch since 2000.

"We do good things at times," said Booth. "We have the capability of being a great team."


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