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Unique structure powers Panthers' playoff push

Roster has six 35+ veterans, nine players 24 and under

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- The Florida Panthers are on the verge of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012, but that's not good enough.

These Panthers want more.

"The playoffs are the big deal, but you know what, we want to finish as high as we can," coach Gerard Gallant said. "We want to finish in first place [in the Atlantic Division]. We were there most of the season, in the second half of the season we were in third place a lot. It would be real nice to finish in the first place."

The Panthers took a step in that direction Tuesday at Bell Centre with a 4-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens, the team they passed in the standings when they moved into first place in the Atlantic Division on Jan. 2 with a 3-0 win against the New York Rangers.

The Panthers stayed atop the division for two months until a 3-2 loss at the Colorado Avalanche on March 3 dropped them behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the win Tuesday, combined with losses by the Lightning and Boston Bruins, enabled the Panthers to move back into first place.

It was Florida's sixth win in 13 games (6-4-3) and came one night after a loss at the New York Islanders in a game the Panthers led 2-0 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period but lost 3-2 in regulation. It was indicative of the inconsistency Gallant said has hurt the Panthers of late, something they will need to correct before going into the playoffs.

"It's not about shoring something up, it's about being consistent for 60 minutes because we've played great hockey and we've played poor hockey," Gallant said. "Consistency's the biggest thing for me."

Video: FLA@MTL: Trocheck opens the scoring for the Panthers

In order to find that consistency, Gallant will lean on what is one of the more unique roster structures in the NHL.

The Panthers have six players who are 35 or older, led by forward Jaromir Jagr, 44, and nine players who are 24 or younger.

Forward Shawn Thornton, 38, said Gallant gathered his older veterans prior to last season and told them the locker room was theirs to run. The result is that if any of the young players have an issue they need to discuss, they go to one of the veteran leaders, who will either deal with it or bring it to the coach on the player's behalf.

That's usually not necessary.

"Our young guys are uber-talented, great kids personality-wise, character-wise," said Thornton, who signed a one-year contract for next season Feb. 25. "They listen when you talk. When somebody says something they take it, they digest it and they react to it."

Gallant refused to say the lack of consistency the Panthers have shown at times was a byproduct of their youth because of how much trust he places in his veterans to guide the younger players.

"I don't go in the locker room and bother the players," Gallant said. "They lead our team in the locker room and they take care of our locker room and that's why we have a lot of success. We have good veteran players and they help the kids along. We don't really have the middle core guys; we have the older guys and a real good bunch of young guys."

Video: OTT@FLA: Jagr beats Anderson twice, opens the scoring

Jagr joked at the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville six weeks ago that not having those "middle" players was the secret to the Panthers' success. At least it appeared he was joking.

"I wasn't kidding man, I was telling the truth. That's what it is," Jagr said with a laugh. "Once again through my experience, the young guys are still hungry and the old guys have to be hungry, otherwise they're out of the League. That's what we've got, so we're a pretty hungry team."

That hunger is now focused on winning the Atlantic Division, but not necessarily for Jagr.

"It's nice to win a division, no question about it, but I think the most important thing is to play very good hockey going into the playoffs, if we make it," he said. "I saw a lot of teams who clinched five, 10 games before [the end of the season]; they were kind of resting players and in the first round they were upset because they weren't ready to play against teams who were fighting until the last game for the playoffs.

"Sometimes it's good to win it, but on the other side it's good to fight."

That's exactly the kind of veteran perspective Gallant has depended on all season. It's never been as important as it is now.

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