Panthers claw one out

BARRE CAMPBELL -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:59 AM ET

As far as regular season home finales go, you couldn't ask for more drama from the Senators.

Seemingly down and out by a pair of goals late in the final period, the Senators clawed their way back to force overtime in the dying seconds, only to lose on a Joe Nieuwendyk goal late in the extra period in a 5-4 barnburner against the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Place.

The point for the overtime loss allowed the Senators to clinch top spot in the Northeast Division and at least second place overall in the Eastern Conference.

As the final weekend of the regular season begins, the Senators lead Carolina by two points for the conference lead, but the Hurricanes have played one fewer game.

A win tonight by Carolina against Tampa Bay would tie the teams heading home, with the Senators completing the regular season in Toronto tomorrow night and in Manhattan against the Rangers on Tuesday.

But heading to Hogtown, the Senators should get a lift out of last night's effort. They trailed 3-0 at one point and 4-2 heading into the final minutes after Martin Gelinas beat Ottawa goalie Mike Morrison with 6:30 remaining.

But Peter Schaefer scored shorthanded one minute after Gelinas. Captain Daniel Alfredsson got the equalizer with two seconds remaining after Bryan Smolinski won a draw in the Florida zone with Morrison on the bench for an extra attacker.

"I just got a good shot away, so it was a nice way to bounce back and get a point and give us at least a chance to win in overtime," said Alfredsson whose goal sent the 19,173 spectators into a frenzy.

But Nieuwendyk scored the 559th goal of his career to end it, cashing in on a 3-on-2 break for the winner. It gave Florida coach Jacques Martin his first victory in Ottawa since being fired as Senators bench boss following the 2003-04 playoffs.

"It's nice because Gary (Roberts) and I wanted to win real bad when we went back to Toronto the other night," said Nieuwendyk. "For him to come back here after all the things he did here is sweet for him, too."

The Senators might have had a better fate without the stellar goaltending of Roberto Luongo, who made 46 saves, including five in overtime.

"Our goalie played big tonight," said Nieuwendyk. "But our team found a way to win, and I think we showed some character doing that."

Mike Fisher, the first Ottawa player to score against Luongo last night, got the rally going late in the third when he intercepted a pass in his own zone while defending a Panthers power play. He skated the length of the ice before delivering a perfect cross-slot pass to Schaefer, who tipped the puck behind Luongo.

"We got ourselves into a hole in the first part of the game, but after that we just decided to start playing," said Fisher. "We played with a bit of energy, some key goals and a bit of excitement at the end."

Fisher's first goal was a beauty.

Set up by Patrick Eaves, Fisher split two Florida defenders at the blue line, then deked Luongo down before flipping the puck into the net.

"We showed a bit of character, but overall we should have been better early on," said Fisher. "We didn't help Morrison out much at the start."

A win tomorrow for the Senators not only could help them clinch top spot in the conference, but could also knock the rival Leafs out of the playoff picture.

Ottawa has lost four of its last five games and wants to get on a roll heading into the playoffs.

barre.campbell@ott.sunpub.com


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