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Carter's third-period goal puts Flyers in playoff mode

THE FLYERS have been trying to downplay the idea that they were taking forever to lock up a playoff spot.

Flyers goaltender Martin Biron makes one of his 29 saves last night against the Florida Panthers.
Flyers goaltender Martin Biron makes one of his 29 saves last night against the Florida Panthers.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff photographer

THE FLYERS have been trying to downplay the idea that they were taking forever to lock up a playoff spot.

They were hoping to clinch last week, but a loss to the Bruins five games ago complicated that plan. As the wins and points eluded them, the pressure began to mount, fingers were pointed and the possibility of a collapse hung over them like a black cloud.

The players, particularly captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, downplayed the whole thing. And it turns out they were right. It's a nonissue now.

Needing only a single point or a loss by the New York Rangers, the Flyers played a dominant third period, got a big goal from their big-goal scorer, a good night in net from their upcoming playoff starter and a leading defensive role from Selke Trophy candidate Richards to nail down their postseason appearance with a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers last night in the Wachovia Center.

The bad news of the night was the loss of defenseman Ryan Parent to a groin pull. Parent turned to skate backwards on a play in the second period and apparently suffered the injury. He immediately left the ice and did not return. He will be evaluated today; the Flyers said last night that they did not believe it was serious.

With the playoffs no longer in question, Parent is likely to sit out the remaining games in the hopes of having him healthy for the first round, which could start next Thursday.

"It's nice to get it out of the way," said Richards, who seemed to take the criticism of the last week a bit personally and defended his team at every turn. "Now that we're in there, we still have one goal to go and that's to get home-ice advantage in the first round. But it definitely is nice to see how we closed out the game in the third tonight.

"We really didn't give them much in the third period and that's what we're going to need here down the stretch and hopefully carry that into the playoffs."

After taking nearly a period to get the intensity up and then falling behind in the second, Carter broke the 1-1 deadlock at 7:32 of the third period in the way he has scored goals all year, using a lightning quick shot to catch the opposition by surprise.

Skating along the goal line toward the side of the Florida net, Carter released a quick shot that struck Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun in the side and deflected in to put the Flyers up, 2-1.

"Just shoot the puck," was the response from the always-understated Carter regarding the play. "I couldn't see a thing. I had [Florida defenseman Jassen] Cullimore standing right in front of me. I couldn't see a thing. I just shot it."

Along with a second-period goal by Joffrey Lupul, the Carter line provided all the offense the Flyers needed to finally lock up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The only thing left to play out over the next three games is seeding. The Flyers and Carolina each has 97 points, but the Flyers have a game in hand and technically are fourth in the Eastern Conference; Carolina is fifth. Pittsburgh has 95 points but, like Carolina, has just two games remaining.

Carolina, by the way, beat the Islanders last night, 9-0.

That is a concern for another night. Last night it was all about putting the regular-season chase for the postseason behind them.

"It feels awesome to be honest with you," coach John Stevens said. "I just told our team you have to have a great year to get into the playoffs, not just a good year. You have to battle through a lot of adversity and I thought the way we did it was great.

"We didn't give up much in the third period; I think they only had two shots for most of the way. We locked it down, didn't really give up many quality scoring opportunities and that's what you want to see from your hockey team."

After a scoreless first period, Florida struck first at 4:30 of the second. Michael Frolik skated the puck deep into the Flyers zone and around Randy Jones.

Once Frolik cleared the Flyers defenseman he passed back into the slot and found Brett McLean, who blew the puck past Biron and into the net for a 1-0 lead.

The Flyers tied the game with a drive of their own. Defenseman Matt Carle jumped into the offense, skated in deep and came back to Lupul in the crease. The puck hit Lupul's skate and banked into the net off the post at 15:45.

The biggest news of the period, however, was the disappearance of Parent and the fact that the Flyers were left playing with only five defensemen.

General manager Paul Holmgren said Parent suffered "a little bit of a groin tweak. We'll see how he is [today]. Nobody thinks it's serious. Not [trainer Jim McCrossin], not Ryan or the doctors. We'll have a better idea [today]."

In the remaining three games, the Flyers are looking to focus on their play while attempting to secure the fourth seed and get home ice at least in the first round.

"I like to win games and move on," said Biron, who was solid in net with 29 saves. "Tonight was great and [today] will be another day in the office and I'll move on.

"That's a great feeling to have. Going in [today] thinking about solidifying our position in fourth place, or keep working toward that very important home-ice advantage, and then we'll deal with what happens in a week from now." *