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Panthers defeat Penguins, move into tie for final playoff spot

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers' spark Sunday night could be traced to Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby's fight in the first period. More specifically, the desperate Panthers started fighting for a win after Florida defenceman Keith Ballard's big hit on Evgeni Malkin that prompted Crosby to throw punches in the first place.

Bryan McCabe and Rostislav Olesz each had a goal and an assist to lead the Panthers to a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh, the Penguins' second regulation loss in 18 games.

"That Ballard hit really changed the momentum," said David Booth, who scored for Florida in the second period. "We were getting outshot pretty bad there. To get the crowd into it, especially on a big star player in the NHL against Malkin, really got the team into it."

Ville Peltonen also had a goal, and Jay Bouwmeester had two assists to help the Panthers move into a tie with the idle New York Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

"We needed to win tonight. It was do-or-die," McCabe said. "That's one down. We're tied, same amount of games left. We've just got to keep winning."

Ballard said he expected a fight after the hit, though he thought it was clean. Crosby received a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a major for fighting. It was his second fight with a Florida player this season; He got into a scrap with Brett McLean during a Jan. 3 game against the Panthers.

"I went over not sure if he was going to fight," Crosby said. "I don't go into games looking to fight, that's for sure. It just kind of happens. It's just a coincidence. I don't fight that much. To get two against one team is kind of weird, but it's part of the game."

Florida, vying for its first playoff berth since 2000, has 89 points with three games remaining. The Rangers, who lost 1-0 to Boston on Saturday, hold the edge over Florida because they have one more victory.

"Obviously, we're in a hole tonight if we don't win," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. "And (now) we can wake up tomorrow tied for the last playoff spot."

Pascal Dupuis and Mark Eaton scored for the Penguins, who could have secured a playoff spot with a win. The Penguins, who have 93 points after 79 games, were coming off a 3-2 overtime loss in Carolina on Saturday night.

"It would have been nice, but every team is desperate," Crosby said. "We knew they were going to battle hard. They're battling very hard. That's what we expected."

In his return to Florida's starting lineup, goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped 41 shots. Backup Craig Anderson helped lead the Panthers to three wins in their past four games, but coach Pete DeBoer decided to make the switch after Florida's 3-1 loss to Atlanta on Friday night.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 22 saves for the Penguins.

Eaton's power-play goal made it 3-2 with 5:54 left in the third period. His shot from the point went between Vokoun's legs. Then, with 4:04 remaining, Peltonen carried the puck from behind the net and pushed it home as three Pittsburgh players converged around him. He put the Panthers up 4-2.

Florida went up 2-1 when McCabe scored with 20 seconds left in the first period. McCabe's slap shot went off Pittsburgh defenceman Kristopher Letang for his 14th goal of the season. Booth's power-play goal on a delayed penalty widened the gap. With 12 seconds left in the second period, Booth took a pass from Bouwmeester and scored from the side of the net to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead.

Dupuis tied it 1-1 at 6:08 in the first period, slapping home a loose puck after Panthers defenceman Karlis Skrastins couldn't control it in front of the net. Olesz opened the scoring after just 1:55 of play. He swept up the puck after Pittsburgh defenceman Hal Gill knocked it with his glove, then came in alone on Fleury and beat him with a backhand deke.

Notes: Panthers C Gregory Campbell played in his 300th career game. ... Florida rookie C Michael Frolik left the ice early in the second period after a slap shot from Penguins D Brooks Orpik hit his hand. Frolik returned to the game.


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