With two key wins to close their recent road trip, the Florida Panthers may have awakened just in time to save their bid to reach the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
But they still have plenty of work to do if they hope to climb back to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and they'll need to start with a strong performance during this week's three-game homestand, which opens Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators.
The Panthers appeared to be fading out of the postseason picture when they stumbled to a 1-4-3 stretch earlier this month, and their 5-3 loss to Buffalo on Wednesday night wasn't a promising sign to start a three-game trip.
But they responded with victories at Philadelphia and Dallas, combining to score 10 goals in those games after their stagnant offense had failed to score four goals in any of their previous eight games.
"We wanted to get two of three on this trip, and we got them," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "We've got three home games and we've got to take care of business. Hopefully at the end of the day we'll look up and be in."
Florida (37-28-11) still trails eighth-place Montreal by one point, and the Canadiens also have a game in hand entering the final two weeks. The Panthers also have to worry about the Sabres, who are three points behind Florida but also have one extra game to play.
"With six games left, we have to basically win all of them to control our own destiny," star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said.
Bouwmeester was one of six different players to score for Florida in Saturday night's 6-3 victory over the Stars, also adding an assist and logging a team-high 29:11 of ice time. Cory Stillman added a goal and two assists.
But Florida remains a defensive-minded club, and Craig Anderson has earned back-to-back wins in net, making a combined 72 saves in place of starter Tomas Vokoun. DeBoer wasn't pleased with Vokoun's play against Buffalo, and it seems likely Anderson will continue to claim playing time.
"I knew I was putting him in a tough situation," DeBoer said. "He's shown his character. I think the guys see that and have responded for him."
It may take another strong effort to beat Ottawa. Even though the Senators (33-32-10) are realistically eliminated from playoff contention, they've been one of the league's hottest teams lately, winning 10 of their last 13.
They won 3-0 at Tampa Bay on Sunday, as rookie Brian Elliott made 20 saves for his first NHL shutout. Elliott has won nine of his last 11 starts, with a 2.34 goals-against average over that span.
"(Elliott is) going to have a long career in this league," Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips said. "It's nice to be a part of that, but we're going to keep fighting right to the end and then we'll see what happens."
The Senators are still mathematically alive for the playoffs, but they trail Montreal by 10 points with seven games to play. They could be officially eliminated from contention with a regulation loss and a Canadiens victory over Chicago on Tuesday.
Ottawa and Florida will be meeting for the final time this season, but the teams haven't faced off since Dec. 8, when Stephen Weiss' overtime goal gave the Panthers a 4-3 road win.
The road team has won all three games in this season's series, including the Senators' 2-1 win in Sunrise, Fla., on Oct. 30.