By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Panthers captain Olli Jokinen and goaltender Tomas Vokoun celebrate the Cats victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Sunday at the BankAtlantic Center. (Getty Images)
Several minutes after the Panthers had defeated the Thrashers 3-1, Stephen Weiss
sat in front of his locker at BankAtlantic Center, skates still on his feet, and said; “This is the closest I’ve been.”
Weiss was referring to the fact that, after tying a franchise record with their seventh consecutive victory Sunday evening, the Panthers were two points from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Better yet, they were only five points from the top of the Southeast Division and, come Thursday night, the Panthers will have a shot to change that when division-leading Carolina comes to town for the biggest game of the season.
A month ago, the Panthers were left for dead. Now they’re making noise.
Here’s the only thing you have to know about these Panthers: In their last nine games, they’ve gone 7-1-1 and outscored their opponents in the third period 10-3.
“It shows we’re capable of defending a lead,” said GM and coach Jacques Martin.
It’s a total turnaround for a team that struggled with leads just a month ago. And it seems everyone is chipping in.
On Sunday, the line of Olli Jokinen, Brett McLean and Rostislav Olesz combined for two goals and five points. Jokinen scored his second consecutive game-winning goal, and McLean had two points for the fifth consecutive game. The line of Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen and Kamil Kreps added a goal and have now had points in each of the last three games. Defensemen Jassen Cullimore and Magnus Johansson played strong and steady for more than 20 minutes each. Two of the goals came on the power play. Tomas Vokoun stopped 29 shots. Wade Belak continued to keep the opposition honest.
But in the words Martin and his players, “We’re still not there yet.”
The question, however, is how have the Panthers gone seven games without a loss after playing so inconsistent during the first two-thirds of the season? And why have they gone 7-1-1 since the trade deadline?
“That’s a good question,” offered Weiss, who was robbed twice Sunday by Thrashers’ goalie Johan Hedberg. “You know, it’s just one of those things. I know we didn’t play so well without the puck when we weren’t going so well. Now we’re not hurting ourselves with turnovers. We’re playing as a team. Maybe some guys were a little tense before (the deadline).”
McLean said it’s a combination of adding players (Belak) and the rest of the Panthers stepping up.
“When you add guys it definitely helps,” McLean said. “But the guys here before the deadline have definitely stepped up their game as well. I think it’s more of a timing thing. The guys who have been here all year are playing their best as well.”
As far as the deadline, McLean added; “Maybe it was the final hurdle before the homestretch.”
“Everyone knows this is our team now,” he said. “This is your role and you have to accept it. It’s time to help the team win hockey games.”
Despite their current winning streak and now being four games over .500 (35-31-8), the Panthers realize there’s no room for error. They have only eight games left, and eighth-place Philadelphia has a game in hand and Washington, tied with the Panthers with 78 points, also have a game in hand.
“It’s nice to be in the mix,” McLean said. “But, obviously, there’s a lot of other teams in the mix. They last seven games we’ve taken care of business, and we need to do that Thursday.”
The Hurricanes, who Sunday beat Ottawa 5-1, are, like the Panthers, one of the hottest teams in the league. They’ve won six of their last seven, are 13-4-1 in their last 18 games, and are 8-2 in their last 10. The Hurricanes will arrive Thursday in South Florida to face the Panthers after having played Wednesday evening in Atlanta.
“There’s still room to improve,” Jokinen said.
And with two weeks and eight games remaining in the season, that is a good thing.