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Panthers face hectic schedule during final playoff push

Florida must successfully navigate six-game, nine-day stretch to land postseason berth

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The challenge is daunting for the Florida Panthers. 

Nine days. Six games.

Three against the Boston Bruins, the top team in the Eastern Conference, and one against the Nashville Predators, the top team in the NHL.

The Panthers have a shot to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They're three points behind the New Jersey Devils for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, with a game in hand.

But they play at Boston on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; SN, NESN, FS-F, NHL.TV). Then they have four games at home - against the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, the Predators on Tuesday, the Bruins on Thursday and the Buffalo Sabres on April 7 - before going back to Boston for the regular-season finale April 8. The final game originally was scheduled for Jan. 4 but postponed because of a winter storm.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner said Friday he didn't know if he would start Roberto Luongo or James Reimer in goal on Saturday, or whether he would play the same goaltender back to back down the stretch.

Video: FLA@CBJ: Luongo uses the blocker to stone Milano

"Right now ,there's no playbook for this," Boughner said. "It's just instinct and scraping points every night."

The Panthers made a heck of a run to get into the race. They went 20-6-1 from Jan. 30 through Monday, leading the NHL in wins during that span.

The question is whether they have enough experience or energy now. They lost 4-3 at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and 3-2 in overtime at the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. They fell behind 3-0 in the first 13:55 at Toronto and didn't start well at Ottawa, either.

"I think for me, the No. 1 thing is, we have to commit as a group and show some maturity in our game to manage the game a little better," Boughner said. "I still think we're trying to force the puck through people instead of putting it behind them. Our puck management could be better.

"It's a young team, and they haven't been through this kind of a grind and this kind of playoff mentality that you need at this time of year. You've got to be able to take what the game gives you, and sometimes we force things and that's not how to play this time of year."

The grind appears to be taking its toll on the Panthers' top scorers, center Aleksander Barkov, who has 75 points (26 goals, 49 assists), and center Vincent Trocheck, with 70 (30 goals, 40 assists). Barkov leads NHL forwards in average ice time with 22:14. Trocheck is fifth with 21:23. They combined for one point in the past two games, an assist by Trocheck at Toronto.

Video: ARI@FLA: Trocheck picks the corner from a tough angle

"Sometimes that catches up to you, especially at busy times of the year, and that's what we're in right now and will be in next week," Boughner said. "Problem is, we're in such a desperation mode right now. The end of the game in Toronto where we pull the goalie and we need a goal. Last night overtime, 3-on-3. Who are you going to put out there?"

The Panthers did not practice Friday. Boughner wants to spread out the ice time, if he can.

"We hope we don't get into games where it's overtime and it's shootouts and it's five or six penalty kills," he said. "Those are things that we can't afford to do right now and keep them as fresh as possible."

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