Panthers 4, Senators 1
OTTAWA (AP) _ A matchup of unlikely first-place teams _ Florida and Ottawa _ brought out the best in only one.
Rob Niedermayer scored less than six minutes into the game and the Panthers, who finished fifth in the Atlantic Division in each of their first two seasons in the league, earned a 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
The Senators, who finished last in the Northeast Division in their first three seasons, remained in first _ at least temporarily _ after their three-game winning streak ended.
``That team brings out the worst in our hockey club,″ Ottawa coach Rick Bowness said.
Niedermayer, Stu Barnes and Jesse Belanger gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead before Trent McCleary spoiled Mark Fitzpatrick’s shutout bid with 9:50 remaining.
Brian Skrudland added an empty-net goal for Florida.
``It was a very complete game,″ Panthers GM Bryan Murray said. ``We were fortunate to get ahead by one and put some pressure on them.″
First-year coach Doug MacLean said, ``I thought it was close to perfection.″
After a brief Ottawa flurry to start the game, Niedermayer’s goal at 5:34 ruined the tempo of the game at the Civic Centre.
The erratic work of referee Dave Jackson, who called 15 penalties, made a mockery of the new NHL crackdown on obstruction fouls. The result was a dreary game and 50 minutes of near silence from the crowd of 8,660.
Florida improved to 7-3-0 and keeps pace with Philadelphia and New Jersey in the Atlantic Division.
``We knew (the Senators) were on a high after beating New York, beating Detroit, beating L.A., but we are too,″ said Fitzpatrick, who made 21 saves.
``We knew if we played the way we know how, we’d be all right.″
The Senators, who dropped to 5-4-0, had won five of their last six.
Ottawa spent more than a quarter of the game _ 15:53 _ with a man advantage but was held scoreless during those 10 power plays.
``It was more than the power play,″ said Ottawa defenseman Steve Duchesne. ``It’s everything we did. When we’ve got two or three guys who don’t show up, it hurts.″
The Panthers outshot Ottawa 28-22 and were also scoreless on five power plays.
Ottawa rookie goalie Mike Bales, making his first NHL start after three seasons in the minors, had a rough start.
Niedermayer scored on the rebound from Bales’ first save of the game at 5:34. Barnes slipped a rebound between Bales’ skates early in the second period.
Belanger scored the prettiest goal of the game at 3:37 of the third period. He beat defenseman Kerry Huffman one-on-one then put a backhand move on Bales.
McCleary chipped a short pass from Scott Levins up and over Fitzpatrick’s stacked pads, but Skrudland made it 4-1 with 1:09 to play.