SUNRISE, Fla. - By stocking up on tons of upcoming draft picks and young talent, the Florida Panthers are trying to set themselves up for a bright future.
The future might arrive a little ahead of schedule.
Often a playoff long shot at this time of year, the Panthers find themselves right in the mix of the Eastern Conference post-season race this season. The Panthers are six points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, still in the chase despite just enduring a five-game losing slide that ended with a 3-2 win over Columbus on Thursday night.
"We still have some growing to do," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "But we're close. It's getting exciting because we see the future and we see that we're not far off."
Led by a combination of savvy veterans ? like goalie Roberto Luongo and defenceman Willie Mitchell ? playing alongside a young core that includes rising star defenceman Aaron Ekblad, centre Nick Bjugstad and winger Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida has probably exceeded many expectations already.
A year ago at this time, the Panthers were 15th in the 16-team East. Now, some of the players are already checking scoreboards around the league on a nightly basis to see what the playoff standings look like.
"We've got a good team," said Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick in 2011 who hasn't sniffed an NHL playoff chase before. "It's cool. The games are way more important when you're looking at a playoff spot. It's big for us. We don't want to miss our chance this year and we've got some veterans reminding the young guys who haven't been there to take advantage of that chance."
Florida starts a three-game, four-day swing through the New York metropolitan area on Saturday, with road games against the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. The Rangers are the team that was immediately atop Florida in the standings entering Friday, and the Islanders seem poised to grab one of the East's best playoff seeds.
It might be a critical stretch, but the road hasn't been unkind of Florida of late. The Panthers have emerged with 13 of a possible 20 standings points in their last 10 road games.
"This is a huge road trip," Luongo said.
Florida's playoff history ??? or lack thereof ??? is well-known. The team hasn't won a playoff series since its run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, and has reached the post-season just once since 2000.
Nonetheless, there's still confidence inside the Panthers' locker room.
And if nothing else, at this time of year, that represents some progress.
"It's such an important time of the season right now," said Sean Bergenheim, who had the gamewinner on Thursday on a play where he was simultaneously taking a high stick to his face. "It's a good feeling but we're learning at the same time. We haven't played the way we have to play in a lot of games lately to be a successful team. But you've got to believe. And we do."