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Slide hurting Panthers' playoff chances

By Mike Lipka

Stats Writer

Florida (35-28-11) at Philadelphia (40-22-10) 7:00 p.m. EDT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- As the streaking Philadelphia Flyers close

in on a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, the ice-cold

Florida Panthers appear to be squandering their chances of

playing in the postseason.

The Panthers will be in desperate need of a victory in

Philadelphia on Thursday night, less than 24 hours after a late

meltdown dealt another blow to their hopes of ending a nine-year

playoff drought.

Florida's 1-4-3 stretch over the last few weeks took an ugly

turn Wednesday night, when the team coughed up a two-goal lead

in a 2:07 span in the third period, eventually losing 5-3 to

Buffalo.

The Panthers also showed their frustration in a lengthy m??l??e

after the Sabres sealed the game with an empty-netter in the

final minute. Florida lost its third straight game overall and

remained two points behind eighth-place Montreal with eight

games to play, while the Canadiens have nine games left.

"I don't have an answer," Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe said.

"Obviously, we picked a bad time of the year to start blowing

leads. We have to find a way to remedy that."

Holding a 1-0 lead against Columbus on Saturday, Florida also

yielded three goals in just over two minutes to lose 3-1.

On Wednesday, Panthers coach Peter DeBoer didn't sugarcoat his

feelings on his club's latest collapse, pointing the finger

directly at goaltender Tomas Vokoun after he gave up three goals

on 20 shots in the third period.

"We need a big save at a critical time in the third period to

win a game. I don't think we've gotten one lately," DeBoer said.

"You can't let (the loss) be devastating. The goalie's got to

close the door when you're in that situation. You know what? He

didn't."

It's unclear if backup Craig Anderson will be in net Thursday,

but either way the Panthers will try to do a better job of

preventing shots. They allowed 45 shots on goal Wednesday,

raising their league-worst average to 34.6 per game.

While Florida stumbles, the Flyers could be getting hot at the

right time, having won three straight games to solidify their

hold on fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They lead

fifth-place Carolina by one point, but they have four games in

hand on the Hurricanes.

The three consecutive victories have come on the heels of a

4-5-1 stretch that had Philadelphia in danger of losing home-ice

advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The most impressive win during their run may have come Monday

night, when the Flyers beat New Jersey, 4-2, handing Devils

goalie Martin Brodeur just his third loss in 12 starts since

returning from biceps surgery.

Jeff Carter scored his 40th goal to break a 2-2 tie in the third

period and Simon Gagne added his 30th as insurance, while Martin

Biron made 32 saves. Biron is 7-3-0 with a 1.98 goals-against

average in his last 11 appearances.

"We really feel like we're starting to get into that groove,"

Carter said. "We're playing solid D, Marty's standing on his

head making saves when we need them and guys are leaving it all

out there."

Center Danny Briere had a goal and an assist against New Jersey

and is finally contributing toward the end of an injury-ravaged

season.

A 70-point scorer last season, Briere had played in just nine

games before the month of March due to groin problems, and he

was held without a point in his first seven games back. But the

veteran now has three goals and two assists in his last three

games.

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