Desperate Panthers play host to Penguins

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By Mike Lipka

Stats Writer

Pittsburgh (42-27-9) at Florida (38-29-11), 5:00 p.m. EDT

SUNRISE, Florida (AP) -- With a victory Sunday, the Pittsburgh

Penguins' roller-coaster season will be certain to end with a

third consecutive postseason appearance.

The Florida Panthers would eventually like to join them.

Pittsburgh will have to go through a motivated club if it wants

to punch its ticket to the postseason Sunday in Florida, where

the Panthers can move into a tie for eighth in the Eastern

Conference with a victory.

This season hasn't gone how the young Penguins planned after

their trip to the Stanley Cup finals last year, but they're

15-2-4 since interim coach Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien

on Feb. 15.

They've already beaten the Panthers twice during that run,

including a 4-1 win in Sunrise, Fla., on March 5.

The timely surge has put Pittsburgh (42-27-9) six points ahead

of ninth-place Florida (38-29-11) in the East. Both teams have

four remaining games, meaning the Penguins can clinch a playoff

spot with any kind of victory Sunday.

Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss at Carolina was a rare instance in

the last month when Pittsburgh's prolific offense was relatively

quiet, but the team managed a point even though neither Sidney

Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin found the scoresheet.

Malkin failed to convert a penalty shot with the game tied in

the third period and Pittsburgh remained in sixth place in the

East, two points behind both Philadelphia and the Hurricanes.

"We're playing well, and it's not fun to lose, but I think if we

realize we play that way every game, we're going to see some

more pucks go in," Crosby said. "We're going to be tough to

beat."

In the 15 games before Saturday's contest, the Penguins had

averaged 3.8 goals, with Crosby and Malkin each notching seven

goals and 13 assists over that span and newcomer Chris Kunitz

contributing seven goals and eight assists.

The team scored six goals on New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in

a win Wednesday, but didn't have as much success against

Carolina's Cam Ward.

"I think we would have liked to have buried some of our chances,

but I think, pretty often, when you play like that, you're going

to see some good results," Crosby said. "Unfortunately, we ran

into a hot goalie tonight."

The same could be said of Florida's Craig Anderson, who has

started four straight games over Tomas Vokoun. Anderson won the

first three, but gave up a pair of third-period goals in the

Panthers' 3-1 home loss to Atlanta on Friday night.

Vokoun has lost seven of his last eight starts to draw Florida

coach Peter DeBoer's ire, but the coach said he was unsure which

goalie would start Sunday.

Whichever the choice, a lot of responsibility will fall on that

player's shoulders. Seeking their first postseason berth since

2000, the Panthers are two points behind the eighth-place New

York Rangers. The teams will each have three games remaining

after Sunday's contest.

After scoring 15 goals - six on the power play - during the

three-game winning streak, Florida's offense sputtered against

the Thrashers. The Panthers were 0-for-4 with the man advantage

and Gregory Campbell's second-period tally was their only goal

on 36 shots.

"Nothing seemed to be working and we didn't feel that mojo on

the bench that we've had in the past, for whatever reason, I

don't know what it was," DeBoer said. "But we're still alive

here in the last week of the season. We're two points out of a

playoff spot and a lot of hockey left."

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