Winger Rostislav Olesz will make his return to the lineup after missing the last 43 games after having sports hernia surgery. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
SUNRISE – The way Panthers coach Peter DeBoer sees it, “We’ve got no excuses.”
“Our destiny,” said DeBoer late Saturday morning, “is in our own hands.”
And it begins tonight when the Panthers kick-off a five-game homestand at BankAtlantic Center against the Lightning. With 14 games remaining in the season, the Panthers control their playoff fate with the difference between fifth-and-ninth place in the Eastern Conference being three points.
The Panthers, who just a few days ago were fifth in the east, begin this evening ninth. And it’s that kind of rollercoaster the Panthers are going to have to live with the remainder of the season.
“At this time of year, you can’t worry about how the standings flip-flop or what other teams are doing,” DeBoer said. “It’s tough not to watch. It’s like a car accident. You’re driving down the road and you don’t want to look, but you do.
“But that’s what it is. You’ve got to get used to it and play through it.”
Said defenseman Jassen Cullimore: “Everyone knows what the situation…It’s in our court to win enough games to get into the playoffs.”
The Panthers, who play nine of their final 14 games at home, will begin the task of accumulating those wins this evening against a Lightning team that, while out of the playoffs, still has All-Stars like Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
The Lightning will present a different challenge, DeBoer said, than Thursday’s opponent in Buffalo.
“Playing teams with nothing to lose this time of year, especially when you have world-class players on the other team, it’s dangerous,” DeBoer said. “They can take some chances, poach a little bit looking for goals. Those are tough teams to play.
“You go play Buffalo the other night and you have two teams really afraid to make a mistake. It’s playoff hockey. Then you flip to a team like this that can take some chances, stretch some things out and try to get behind you. It’s a whole different mindset.”
The Panthers will get some help this evening against the Lightning in the form of Rostislav Olesz, who will play his first game since Dec. 4 and undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.
“It’s been a long time so I’m happy to be back,” Olesz said. “I feel the best since I got hurt. We need every point and it’s good I can play, and I will try to help and do my best.”
DeBoer, who had Olesz practicing with the fourth line Saturday morning alongside Anthony Stewart and Brett McLean, is hoping Olesz can bring some skill to the lineup with Nathan Horton (finger) and Bryan McCabe (nose) out of the lineup.
“Rusty has missed (43) games,” DeBoer said. “There’ll be some rust there. But for a lineup missing some natural skill with McCabe and (Nathan) Horton out of the lineup, he has those tools.”
MCCABE HOPING TO RETURN TUESDAY
Defenseman Bryan McCabe worked off-ice Saturday morning and said he was hoping to return to action Tuesday night when the Panthers play host to the Capitals.
That would be great news for the Panthers, who have won only four of 12 games with McCabe out of the lineup.
McCabe said he’ll see doctors Monday morning and then “try to skate with the team Monday and get back.”
McCabe, who was injured March 7 against St. Louis when a shot deflected off his stick and hit him in the face, underwent surgery Monday for a fractured bone. “I didn’t think much of it,” recalled McCabe, who came back a few minutes later and played the remainder of the game. “I’d done it before, broke my orbital bone, but I didn’t need surgery the last time.”
DeBoer said Horton continues to mend from surgery and would likely miss another two weeks after suffering the injury March 7.
“I would expect he’ll be playing at the three week mark of the injury,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not something you can rush. It’s a surgery. There’s a cut there, a tendon, and there’s only so much you can do. It’s not like playing through a shoulder injury or something like that.”