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Riley Nash of the Carolina Hurricanes checks Erik Gudbranson of the Florida Panthers into theboards on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

Panthers crawl into Olympic break with 5-1 loss to Hurricanes

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A few weeks ago Panthers coach Peter Horachek's goal was to be within 5-7 points of a wild-card berth heading into the Olympic break for a legitimate shot at a playoff berth over their final 24 games.

Well, it's time for Plan B.

The Panthers limped into the 20-day hiatus with a 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night for their fifth defeat in their last six games.

They sit in 15th place of the 16-team Eastern Conference and can be no better than 13 points behind a wild-card berth until they return on Feb. 27. They have 51 points and playoff teams generally need 88 to 93 points to qualify, so the Panthers would have to go at least 16-3-5 for a chance.

Fat chance. They're even 10 points behind the 12th place Hurricanes, who have won six of their last eight while the Panthers have lost six of eight.

"Really somber," Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said of the team's mood. "As a group we don't feel very good. Losing's not fun no matter what level you're at. We got to expect to be better as a group. I guess if there is a mental break to get away from things and make sure we come back ready to work."

It didn't help that the Panthers had to finish up in the PNC Arena where the Hurricanes are 30-7-4 against Florida since the building opened at the start of the 1999-2000 season. Or that they had to face Hurricanes red-hot goalie Anton Khudobin (34 saves), the NHL's First Star of January, who has supplanted long-time starter Cam Ward and was making his 16th straight start (11-5).

The Panthers, 0-for-4 on their putrid power play, actually outchanced the Hurricanes 25-22, but Khudobin who was the Bruins third-string goalie behind Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask during their 2010-11 Stanley Cup championship season, outplayed his former mentor.

Thomas was yanked for Scott Clemmensen at 4:36 of the second period after giving up a long rebound off Eric Staal's snap shot that caromed to Jiri Tlusty for an open-net layup. Thomas gave up four goals on 14 shots.

Clemmensen played well but was finally beat by Andrej Sekera, who capped the rout with a third-period power-play goal.

"It's frustrating because we worked so hard and are trying so hard," Clemmensen said. "It's frustrating when you don't see the results."

While Kopecky and rookie Aleksander Barkov head to Sochi, Russia, many of their veteran teammates with expiring contracts such as Goc, Thomas, Scott Gomez, Tom Gilbert, Brad Boyes and defenseman Mike Weaver may be heading to new zip codes before the March 5th trade deadline.

Horachek gave Weaver his first healthy scratch of the season partly due to his age, the back-to-back and a healthy, fresh-legged Dylan Olsen ready to go. Olsen will be sent to San Antonio during the break to play for the Rampage.

The Panthers came out hard in the first period but quickly found themselves down 2-0 as Carolina scored twice within 87 seconds. Olympic-bound winger Tuomo Ruutu picked off a clearing attempt and set up Riley Nash in the slot where he buried it at 9:17.

The forechecking Hurricanes maintained possession and found Alexander Semin in the slot where he wheeled around to pot his 14th goal, and eighth in his last 10 games.

"After the second goal we first started to skate, standing still for the most part," Horachek said. "We weren't moving our feet, weren't defending. We got opportunities the other way but when they scored the third one that was the tough one.

"Hopefully, we have a good opportunity to recharge our batteries, clear our head and feel like this is important, this is desperate. ... People have to feel unsatisfied with what's going on.

"They got to play for jobs, they got to play for pride, the most important driving factor in what you're doing. If you don't feel that in your stomach there's something wrong."

Jonathan Huberdeau stole the puck in the offensive zone and Olsen's slapper was rebounded by rookie center Nick Bjugstad at 15:30 for his 13th goal. However, defenseman Brett Bellemore's deep slapper surprised Thomas with 1:39 left for a 3-1 hole after one.

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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PANTHERS


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