With a victory Sunday, the Pittsburgh Penguins' roller-coaster season will be certain to end with a third consecutive postseason appearance.
The Florida Panthers would eventually like to join them.
Pittsburgh will have to go through a motivated club if it wants to punch its ticket to the postseason Sunday in Florida, where the Panthers can move into a tie for eighth in the Eastern Conference with a victory.
This season hasn't gone how the young Penguins planned after their trip to the Stanley Cup finals last year, but they're 15-2-4 since interim coach Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien on Feb. 15.
They've already beaten the Panthers twice during that run, including a 4-1 win in Sunrise, Fla., on March 5.
The timely surge has put Pittsburgh (42-27-9) six points ahead of ninth-place Florida (38-29-11) in the East. Both teams have four remaining games, meaning the Penguins can clinch a playoff spot with any kind of victory Sunday.
Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss at Carolina was a rare instance in the last month when Pittsburgh's prolific offense was relatively quiet, but the team managed a point even though neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin found the scoresheet.
Malkin failed to convert a penalty shot with the game tied in the third period and Pittsburgh remained in sixth place in the East, two points behind both Philadelphia and the Hurricanes.
"We're playing well, and it's not fun to lose, but I think if we realize we play that way every game, we're going to see some more pucks go in," Crosby said. "We're going to be tough to beat."
In the 15 games before Saturday's contest, the Penguins had averaged 3.8 goals, with Crosby and Malkin each notching seven goals and 13 assists over that span and newcomer Chris Kunitz contributing seven goals and eight assists.
The team scored six goals on New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in a win Wednesday, but didn't have as much success against Carolina's Cam Ward.
"I think we would have liked to have buried some of our chances, but I think, pretty often, when you play like that, you're going to see some good results," Crosby said. "Unfortunately, we ran into a hot goalie tonight."
The same could be said of Florida's Craig Anderson, who has started four straight games over Tomas Vokoun. Anderson won the first three, but gave up a pair of third-period goals in the Panthers' 3-1 home loss to Atlanta on Friday night.
Vokoun has lost seven of his last eight starts to draw Florida coach Peter DeBoer's ire, but the coach said he was unsure which goalie would start Sunday.
Whichever the choice, a lot of responsibility will fall on that player's shoulders. Seeking their first postseason berth since 2000, the Panthers are two points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers. The teams will each have three games remaining after Sunday's contest.
After scoring 15 goals - six on the power play - during the three-game winning streak, Florida's offense sputtered against the Thrashers. The Panthers were 0-for-4 with the man advantage and Gregory Campbell's second-period tally was their only goal on 36 shots.
"Nothing seemed to be working and we didn't feel that mojo on the bench that we've had in the past, for whatever reason, I don't know what it was," DeBoer said. "But we're still alive here in the last week of the season. We're two points out of a playoff spot and a lot of hockey left."