SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers have spent a good part of the season trying to hold off the Washington Capitals and stay atop the Southeast Division to land the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference standings, but they've started thinking about a bigger target.
The Panthers now have their eye on the second seed and the Boston Bruins, tonight's opponents at the BankAtlantic Center.
Boston will come in with a four-point lead (83-79) over Florida, and both teams will have 12 games remaining after Thursday night.
Heading into last Saturday, the Bruins had an eight-point lead over Florida with a game in hand, so the idea of landing the No. 2 seed seemed out of reach for the Panthers.
But Boston has lost its last three and the Panthers have won their last two, making Thursday night's fourth and final meeting between the teams a crucial one.
"We do talk about where our situation is and we do look at this as a four-point game," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "I know we're playing -- excuse the pun -- a bit of a wounded bear right now after their game in Tampa. We know we're going to have our hands full. This is the kind of game we are going to play down the stretch, and I don't think the timing could be any better for us. It's going to be a great challenge for us.
"It’s a team well-respected in our locker room and throughout the League, and when a team like that goes through a little bit of a drought right now, you know they're going to come out very hungry and angry. I think that's what we need as a team as well. We need to have ourselves a game that's incredibly competitive, and that's what I would expect tonight."
In the Southeast Division, Florida has only a one-point lead over Washington, but also has a game in hand. Winnipeg is five points behind the Panthers, but also has played one more game. The Capitals and Jets meet Friday night in Winnipeg.
But the Panthers, who haven't made the playoffs since 2000, are trying not to get too caught up in the standings.
"You can't look five games ahead," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "You've just got to concentrate on this game. This is huge. Every single period, every single shift, every single time you touch the puck, it's going to be like a playoff game.
"We've really got to keep this thing going. We've won two games, but I want to say we haven't been up against an opponent like Boston. That's going to be a really huge test. That's why you prepare in the summer, that's why you work hard, this is why you ride the bike, do your long jogs and runs, you prepare for situations like these."