Following an awful end to February, the Florida Panthers knew it would take an extraordinary finish to the regular season to earn their first postseason berth in eight years.
So far, they look like they might be up to the challenge.
With six games remaining, the Panthers continue their pursuit of a playoff spot as they try to sweep a home-and-home series over the Lightning Tuesday in Tampa Bay.
After losing eight of its last 10 games in February, Florida (36-31-9) entered March in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of the final playoff spot. Instead of conceding the season, the Panthers have responded by going 8-0-1 this month while outscoring their opponents 25-13.
"We're growing as a team and we're playing better, as you can see," said Florida right wing Nathan Horton, who has four goals and three assists during March. "It's a matter of do or die and we've got to win every game."
The Panthers, who have not made the playoffs since 1999-2000, are now 10th in the East and only three points back of eighth-place Boston. Florida closes the regular season with four of its final six games on the road.
"We're still in the race," Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. "We still have a lot of life. You just don't know. We have to be focused to the end and see what happens."
Horton finished with two goals in Saturday's 4-2 home win over the Lightning, but Vokoun was the star of the game.
|Goaltender Tomas Vokoun, left, and the Florida Panthers still hold out hope of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Vokoun made 32 of his 35 saves over the final two periods and held Tampa Bay scoreless on five power-play opportunities in the second to join Roberto Luongo (35 in 2005-06) as the only Panthers goalies to post 30 wins in a season.
"He had an unbelievable game. Better than great, unbelievable," Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier said. "He came through time and again in the clutch."
Vokoun is 5-0-1 with a 1.63 goals-against average in his last six starts after going 0-4-2 with a 3.76 GAA in his previous six. He is 4-2-0 with a 2.85 GAA versus Tampa Bay (29-38-8) this season.
Olli Jokinen scored his team-leading 33rd goal on Saturday for Florida, giving him three goals and an assist in his last four games. Jokinen has five goals and five assists in seven games against the Lightning this season, with Florida going 4-3-0 in those contests. The Panthers captain has eight goals and eight assists in his last 10 games versus Tampa Bay.
Lecavalier leads the Lightning with 40 goals, but has just one in seven games against the Panthers this season.
Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith made 22 saves on Saturday, as he fell to just 3-7-0 with a 2.62 GAA since being acquired from Dallas on Feb. 26. He is 0-1-1 with a 2.48 GAA versus the Panthers in his career.
The Lightning, owners of the worst record in the East, have lost three straight after winning their previous three.