Coach Peter DeBoer's group entered the weekend 7-1-3 in January and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 54 points. The Panthers are looking to snap a seven-season playoff drought.
"I think it's been a long time since Florida made the playoffs, so they made some changes, have a new coach and I think that combination has helped," Panthers rookie forward Michael Frolik told NHL.com. "We just have to listen to Coach and stick to our plan and play hard. I think the last few weeks, we've done that. It's still too far to say we're close to the playoffs, but we've been stepping it up and hopefully we can keep it going."
After losing nine of their first 13 games, the Panthers have gone 19-9-7 since, picking up 45 points in 35 games. Assisting that effort has been the play along the blue line. The Panthers entered the weekend leading the League in goals by defensemen with 32, including 11 from Jay Bouwmeester and 9 from Bryan McCabe.
"I don't think we're a team with a guy that's going to score 50 goals and we really don't rely on one or two guys to do a lot of the scoring," Bouwmeester told NHL.com. "Everyone has to chip in and play a pretty simple game and work hard. That's sort of how we've generated success."
Bouwmeester, who is closing in on the career-high 15 goals he scored last season, can sense optimism in the locker room.
"In years past, we've always been in a spot where we're trying to play catch-up, but this year we're right in the mix," he said. "Over the last three years we've made some nice runs in the second half, but it was too little, too late. I think guys believe we're a good team; we kind of play under the radar a little bit, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."In School
-- The Washington Capitals went back to school Monday to the delight of the players at Kelley Rink -- home of the defending NCAA Division I national champion Boston College Eagles.
Eagles coach Jerry York, who is in the midst of his 14th season, coached Capitals General Manager George McPhee at Bowling Green from 1979-82. The two arranged the practice session since the Caps were in town to battle the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins on Tuesday.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Metro, Alex Ovechkin really soaked in the college atmosphere during the session. He grabbed a hat from York before posing for pictures and skating with B.C. players.
"He was asking what the college life is like, what it's like living in dorms, what Boston is like as a city," Eagles senior forward Anthony Aiello told Howe.
Ovechkin was appreciative how responsive the entire men's hockey team was during their time at Boston.
"Those guys were great to me," Ovechkin told Inside College Hockey. "I liked talking to them, talking about college hockey, about school. That rink they have is sick, especially the locker room. It's like the NHL there."
Senior forward Andrew Orpik, the brother of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, enjoyed the visit.
"It's good to see the guys that are playing professionally still have that kid aspect in them," he said.
On Thursday, the fun continued when Caps players participated in their own version of the Winter Classic, splitting into two teams selected by goalies Jose Theodore
and Brent Johnson and playing a three-on-three scrimmage on the outdoor rink at Chevy Chase Club.
"It was awesome," Brooks Laich told Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post. "If you looked at the guys' faces, every time someone made a play or a goal was scored, guys were hooting and hollering."Captain K
-- Ilya Kovalchuk admits being named the seventh captain in Thrashers history Jan. 11 hasn't really changed his demeanor on or off the ice.
Perhaps more important is the fact Kovalchuk posted 5 goals, 2 assists and a plus-1 rating in his first seven games with the 'C' stitched to his sweater.
"It was an honor for sure (to be named captain), especially on a team that drafted you into the NHL," Kovalchuk told NHL.com. "I know everyone says, 'It's Atlanta,' but we have a lot of talent on this team and if we can turn this season around and, in the process, build for next year, who knows? We have a lot of young players in their first or second year who have stepped up so much. You look at a guy like Bryan Little and what he has done this year, it's unbelievable. I don't know what he ate in summertime, but he's playing really good right now."
Little, who had 21 goals and 34 points in his first 47 games and represented the Thrashers in the YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck during All-Star Weekend in Montreal, is optimistic the club will improve down the stretch.
"I think everyone on the team would have liked to have gotten off to a better start to the season but we have to work with what we've got and the only thing we can do now is to try and get as many points and win every night," Little said. "Points are going to come pretty hard for us."
The Thrashers entered the weekend 14th in the East with 39 points.Hurricane warning
-- Carolina center Eric Staal can recall last season's meltdown as if it were yesterday. He and his mates don't intend on letting history repeat itself.
"It's almost playoff time for us," Staal said. "We've got to win games. We've got 30-some games left, and especially here at home, we've got to make a stand and get the points."
The Hurricanes were atop the Southeast Division for much of 2007-08 before falling behind the Washington Capitals on the final day of the regular season. The Hurricanes needed to win two of their final four games to secure a playoff berth, but couldn't seal the deal. As it turned out, the Hurricanes dropped four of their final six, including two to the Caps.
The result -- the Hurricanes became the first team to miss the playoffs two seasons in a row after winning the Stanley Cup.
"The Caps are playing great hockey right now and we realize it's going to be a tough road ahead, but we were in their shoes last year," Staal told NHL.com. "We were ahead of them and it went down to the last game and they ended up getting in, so hopefully the tide changes and we can do the same thing to them this year. We have to focus on just playing our game and continuing to put up wins. It doesn't really matter whether you get the top seed in your division or earn the 6-7-8 seed in the conference, so long as you earn that chance."
Carolina entered the weekend ninth in the East with 53 points, one behind eight-place Florida and two behind No. 7 Buffalo.Lightning strikes
-- After mustering 10 victories in their first 38 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning are beginning to open some eyes.
"All games now going in are must-wins or critical games," Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday. "Tampa Bay, if you solely look at the stats, the standings, you say it should be a game you have to win. Then you look at their last five, 10 games, and you realize they're one of the hottest teams in the League."
Indeed. Confidence is brewing in Tampa, as evidenced by the team's recent uprising that has nudged the club into fourth place in the Southeast and 12th in the East with 44 points. Captain Vincent Lecavalier, whose team entered the weekend 10-6-1 over its last 17, knows now is not the time to be resting on any laurels.
"If we keep playing the way we have and keep pushing and taking it game by game, then you never know what can happen," Lecavalier told The Tampa Tribune.
Lightning rookie Steven Stamkos, who has 2 goals, 3 assists and a plus-5 rating over his last six games, admits his mental toughness was put to the test in the opening half of the season. In an attempt to ease his transition to the NHL, coach Rick Tocchet has given Stamkos a night off every fourth game.
"It's been tested a lot with all of the things that have happened so far," Stamkos said. "It's definitely been an up-and-down rollercoaster ride, but I think I have a calm and laid back manner and that really helps me. I try not to worry about all the negative stuff being said not only about me, but the team, the ownership and the coaching staff. We have a dressing room that is really tight and we're able to keep that out of there and focus on winning."Ice chips
-- Florida left wing Rostislav Olesz could be sidelined 6-12 weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery Wednesday at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. ... Alex Ovechkin became the Capitals' all-time leading scorer in the All-Star Game when he notched a goal and 2 assists in the Eastern Conference's 12-11 victory against the Western Conference on Sunday. Ovechkin now has 6 points -- one more than Peter Bondra -- and 4 goals in four All-Star appearances. ... Ovechkin, who entered the weekend leading the NHL with 31 goals, was given Wednesday off, an excused absence from practice that coach Bruce Boudreau said had nothing to do with the stinger he received from a shoulder-first crash into the boards in a loss to the Bruins on Tuesday. "I wanted to give him today off to rest," Boudreau said. "He's probably a little stiff, I would think, but, I mean, he's fine." ... Lightning goalie Olaf Kolzig will be sidelined 3-4 months following surgery to repair a ruptured distal biceps tendon in his left arm. It's the same injury suffered by New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in November. ... The Lightning recalled goalie Riku Helenius from Norfolk of the American Hockey League to replace Karri Ramo, who was handed a six-game suspension for his actions at the end of a game with the Admirals on Jan. 24. ... Carolina goalie Cam Ward was named Second Star of the Week for games ending Jan. 25. Ward stopped 67 of 68 shots in road victories on consecutive nights against Toronto and Pittsburgh just prior to the All-Star break. He won his 100th career game Thursday -- a 27-save, 3-2 victory against the Lightning that was his 15th consecutive start. ... The Hurricanes honored late North Carolina State women's basketball coach Kay Yow with a brief video tribute prior to their meeting with the Lightning on Thursday. The Hall of Fame coach died last weekend after a two-decade fight against breast cancer. ... Thrashers defenseman Niclas Havelid played in his 600th NHL game Thursday in a 5-4 loss to the Islanders. The 35-year-old Swede is in his ninth NHL season.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.