Florida gears up for league-worst Columbus

March 30, 2012

Tune into FOX Sports Florida at 7 p.m. to watch the Florida Panthers take on the Columbus Blue Jackets. NHL Panthers territory.

The Florida Panthers are clinging to the Southeast Division lead, though they've certainly been learning how teams out of the playoff race still can be dangerous.

The league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets present the next challenge.

After a tough defeat, visiting Florida looks to bounce back by ending a four-game losing streak to Columbus on Friday night.

The Panthers (37-24-16) lead second-place Washington by four points with a game in hand and can clinch the first division title in franchise history with five points over their final five games.

They lost a point in the race Thursday, however. Shortly after the Capitals beat Boston, Florida allowed the tying goal to Minnesota with 31 seconds remaining in regulation and lost 3-2 in overtime.

"That's a tough one," said goalie Jose Theodore, who lost his fourth straight start. "We could've had two (points), probably should've had two. But you've got to forget about it."

Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann scored for the Panthers, who are 1-1-3 in their last five games. The one win came in a shootout against Eastern Conference-worst Montreal, and the defeats came to Carolina, Edmonton, the New York Islanders and Minnesota - all teams that won't make the postseason.

Florida, seeking its first playoff berth since 2000, has held a third-period lead in each of its last two defeats.

"We haven't taken the easy path all year long," coach Kevin Dineen said. "It's been an up-and-down season and we scratch and claw and all our games have been so close that sometimes we end up on the wrong side of it."

Columbus (25-45-7) is guaranteed to finish with the fewest points in the league, though it is coming off a dominating 4-2 win over playoff-bound Detroit on Wednesday.

Allen York made 29 saves as a last-minute replacement for the injured Steve Mason to earn his first NHL victory in his second career start.

Nikita Nikitin had two assists and R.J. Umberger scored and added an assist.

Rick Nash assisted on Vinny Prospal's first-period goal to give him two goals and three assists over his last three games.

"(Wednesday) was another example where everybody counted us out, but we fought to the end," said Umberger, who has four goals and two assists in his last four games. "We got the kid (York) his first win. That was a lot of fun."

The Blue Jackets are suffering through one of the worst seasons in franchise history, though interim coach Todd Richards was happy with the performance after Columbus was outscored 13-5 in losing its previous two contests.

"I thought we got exactly what we deserved," Richards said. "We came out and played hard against a good team."

The Blue Jackets have won the last four meetings, including a 3-2 overtime win Jan. 19, 2011, when Umberger scored the winning goal.

Upshall, who signed with Florida this past offseason, scored for Columbus in its 3-2 shootout victory March 29, 2011, in the most recent meeting.