Panthers cough up chance to clinch Southeast, playoffs

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There aren’t many sports that allow you to “back into” a third seed, but the Florida Panthers might just do that with the Southeast Division this season. They keep inching toward that mark and/or their first playoff berth in more than a decade, but they’re earning virtually zero style points (not to mention tempting the jinxing gods.)

At first, it seemed like they were ready to cruise to an exciting destination as they opened up a 3-0 lead against a Winnipeg Jets team that had every excuse to fold – especially on the road.

Blame it on “playing not to lose,” just not being good enough or any number of other factors, but the bottom line is that the Jets took over the scoring after Tomas Fleischmann made it 3-0 just 25 seconds in the second period. Winnipeg collected two goals to end the middle frame and then scored two goals within four minutes of the third period to make it 4-3. On the bright side, the Panthers squeezed another charity point out of the game as Tomas Kopecky scored the game-tying goal but Andrew Ladd’s OT winner has to be tough to swallow.

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Well, unless you’re the team that ends up with the East’s sixth seed, that is. In that case, you’re probably licking your chops.

Southeast showdown

This sets up a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to unseat the Panthers for the Southeast title. Florida only needs a point to clinch a playoff spot and the division but the Caps could make that less of a certainty by beating them at the Verizon Center on Thursday.

After that, the Panthers visit the Carolina Hurricanes while the Washington Capitals face a Rangers team with little to play for in Madison Square Garden – both on Saturday.

It would be surprising if Florida fails to win the division and even more shocking if they fall out of the East’s top eight if things really fall apart, but they opened themselves up to that possibility by letting a seemingly certain victory slip away.