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Cats & Coffee: Playoffs Clinched, but a lot More to Play For

by Jameson Olive / Florida Panthers


The Florida Panthers embark on their final road trip of the regular season having already secured a spot in the playoffs, but remain mindful that there is still plenty to play for during their final week of action before the postseason begins.

After erasing a three-goal deficit to come back and defeat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 on Saturday, the Panthers earned their fifth postseason berth in franchise history when Boston lost at Chicago on Sunday.

“It’s good that you make the playoffs,” defenseman Brian Campbell said shortly after the team landed in Toronto on Sunday. “It’s a great accomplishment, but you still want to finish first in our division and keep climbing. It’s part of the work and we’ve just got to keep going and get the rest of this work done.”

With only four games left in their campaign, the Panthers will look to extend their two-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning atop the Atlantic Division as they embark on a three-game road trip against Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa before heading home to host Carolina in the regular season finale.

If the Panthers can stave off the Lightning, who will be without both center Steven Stamkos (upper body) and defenseman Anton Stralman (lower body) for the remainder of the regular season, they will capture their second division title in franchise history.

"We're going to play a very dangerous team in Toronto," forward Jaromir Jagr said of the team’s upcoming slate. "They may not have a lot of points, but they're a different team with all their young guys. They play well and have nothing to lose. All the young guys want to show their coaches they want to play next year. Plus, they are fresh and excited. ... I would rather play a team with a lot of older guys who know they're not making the playoffs."

Here’s what you need to know for the week ahead…

THE GAMES

Monday: at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m.

The Panthers will clinch home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they earn at least one point in Toronto on Monday. Florida has won eight of its past 11 meetings with the Leafs, but a 5-2 loss at the BB&T Center last week proved that even a last place team can look like a playoff contender on any given night. In this contest, the Panthers will likely draw goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who has a 3-4-0 record with a .923 save percentage in eight career games against Florida.

Panthers vs. Maple Leafs this season: 2-1-0
TV: FSF

Radio: English: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beaches); 97.7 WAVK (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)



Thursday: at Montreal Canadiens, 7:30 p.m.

The Panthers will look to cap off a rare season sweep of the Canadiens when they visit Montreal on Thursday. Florida has bested the Canadiens in each of their three previous meetings this season, holding Montreal to one goal or fewer in two of three contests. In their final tilt of the season, the Panthers will likely once again have their hands full with forward Brendan Gallagher, who has five goals and three assists in 13 career games against the Panthers. After missing 12 games with a lower-body injury, Gallagher tallied his 19th goal of the season in his return to Montreal’s the lineup on Saturday in Florida.

Panthers vs. Canadiens this season 3-0-0
TV: FSF (219 SD/200 HD for Comcast customers)
Radio: English: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beaches); 97.7 WAVK (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)


Thursday: at Ottawa Senators , 7:30 p.m.


The Panthers will look to end their final road trip of the regular season with yet another victory against the struggling Senators. Florida has won three of four against Ottawa this season, including a 6-2 victory on March 10 in Sunrise. In this contest, the Panthers focus will likely be on slowing down the electric offensive game of Ottawa’s perennial Norris Trophy candidate, Erik Karlsson. The 25-year-old defenseman has recorded a career-high 79 points (15-64—79) in 79 games this season, including 25 points while on the power play.

Panthers vs. Senators this season: 3-1-0
TV: FSF
Radio: English: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beaches); 97.7 WAVK (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)


Saturday: Carolina Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m.


A day after Pearl Jam blows the roof off the BB&T Center, the Panthers will attempt to hit all the right notes of their own when they host the Hurricanes on the final day of the regular season. Florida has won six straight against Carolina, including a 2-0 victory in Raleigh on Dec. 18. In their final test before the playoffs, the Panthers will look to shutdown Carolina’s leading scorer, Jeff Skinner, who has 14 points (5-9—14) in 23 career games against Florida.

Panthers vs. Hurricanes this season: 2-0-0
TV: FS Sun
Radio: English: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beaches); 97.7 WAVK (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast) r


KEEP AN EYE ON

Big Time Barkov

While the majority of the BB&T Center crowd frantically counted down the seconds of Saturday’s thrilling victory against Montreal, Panthers center Aleksander Barkov remained cool and collected before deflecting an Aaron Ekblad shot past goaltender Mike Condon for the game-winning goal with 28.1 seconds left in regulation.

“We were thinking about tying the game and win this game and we wanted to win this game,” Barkov said. “That's why we won.”

With the playoffs fast approaching, Barkov seems to be heating up at just the right time for the Panthers, who will be without 25-goal scorer Vincent Trocheck for at least the remainder of the regular season.

“Trocheck has been really good for us, probably the best player in the last two months,” Barkov said. “He’s been really good. It was tough, we are going to miss him the next four, five games.”

Barkov, 20, has tallied nine points (3-6—9) during his current five-game point streak, including a career-high four-point performance on Saturday. The former No. 2 overall pick in 2013, he has already set new career highs in goals (26) and points (55) this season.

Improving the Power Play


The Panthers believe that their 22nd-ranked power play will look much improved by the time the playoffs arrive as the team continues to make minor adjustments to their special teams during the final week of the regular season.

After netting only one goal with the extra attacker over their four previous games, Florida’s power play looked much improved in Saturday’s victory against Montreal when center Nick Bjugstad connected with teammate Jonathan Huberdeau on a no-look pass to set up the game-tying goal midway through the third period.

“I knew Huby was on that side,” Bjugstad said of the play. “We’ve been working on trying to get more lateral passes going on because we haven’t had many great chances on the power play these last few games. Huby made a good play. I tried getting it over to him and it worked out.”

After going 8 of 49 with the extra attacker in March, Bjugstad believes that the Panthers will need to continue to improve upon both their power play and penalty kill if they hope to remain completive in the postseason.

“It’ll change the whole outcome of the game,” he said. “We’ve got (Derek) MacKenzie and (Erik) Gudbranson back on the penalty kill, and that’s just as important, if not more important, than the power play in these games. We’ve got to get the special teams buzzing and it helps our chances.”


INTERESTING STATS

  • The Panthers have clinched a playoff berth for just the fifth time in franchise history.
  • The Panthers are heading to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
  • Reilly Smith is one goal shy of giving the Panthers four 25-goal scorers for the first time in franchise history.
  • Jaromir Jagr’s 62 points are the most by a Panthers player since Tomas Fleischmann tallied 61 in 2011-12.




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