Suddenly, you’re paying closer attention to the standings than you ever have before. Suddenly, you’re watching the scoreboard and checking your phone for updates.
Ten games left. Five points from the playoffs. Standing room only at BankAtlantic Center and the Rangers coming to town.
“You have a sense, a feeling around here in the neighborhoods we live, that people are noticing,” said Olli Jokinen.
What they’re noticing is the Panthers stringing together five consecutive wins in their desperate attempt to take this franchise to the playoffs. What they’re noticing is a team hitting its stride and ready to take on the Rangers in front of a sold house Friday evening at BankAtlantic Center.
Ironically, one of the Panthers most memorable victories at BankAtlantic Center came against the Rangers back in November when they won 3-2 in overtime.
“They’ll be Ranger fans,” said Jokinen of SRO crowd. “But our fans really have been supportive. In the tough times they were still coming to the games. We’ve got some hard core fans who support us no matter what.”
And they’ll be needed as the Panthers try to win six consecutive games for the first time since March of 2006 while facing a Ranger team that has proven tough on defense.
The Rangers have allowed only 171 goals this season, third fewest in the NHL behind New Jersey and Detroit. Part of the reason has been goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who has pitched nine shutouts. Offensively, the team is led by goal leaders Chris Drury (22) and Brendan Shanahan (22) and point leaders Scott Gomez (66) and Jaromir Jagr (59).
“They’re one of the better teams in the league in goals against,” said GM and coach Jacques Martin. “We just have to think back a couple weeks ago when they spanked us (5-0). We’ve got to make good decisions with the puck. We’ve got to get our nose dirty.”
After their 4-2 victory Wednesday over the Islanders, the Panthers found themselves Thursday five points from the eighth playoff spot and seven points from Carolina atop the Southeast Division.
|The Cats defense, led by goaltenders Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson (pictured - two shutouts) have shut the door in the past five games, allowing 1.4 goals a game in that span. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) |
During their five-game winning streak, the Panthers have outscored their opponents 14-7, have outshot their opponents in four of the five games, and have gotten contributions from everyone. The only hiccup occurred Wednesday evening when the Panthers appeared to sleepwalk through the first 40 minutes against the Islanders. Luckily, goalie Tomas Vokoun made several big saves.
Jokinen said the first 40 minutes Wednesday was like “the hockey we played early in the year during those tough stretches.”
“Sometimes it goes like that after a few days off,” he added. “The goalies we have give us a chance. (Wednesday) was a good example. Maybe we weren’t as good in the first 40 minutes as the Islanders, but our goalie kept us in and we found a way to win.
“We know there’s a lot of room to improve on our part. I expect to see a totally different team (Friday) night.”
So what’s been the key to the Panthers recent success?
“Other than the first period (Wednesday), we’re not turning the puck over anymore,” said Stephen Weiss
. “When we turn the puck over we spend too much time in our own zone. We get into trouble. When we make good choices – it’s an ugly way to play – that’s the way we’ve got to win games.”
When asked about the importance of Friday’s game, Weiss replied; “It’s a big game, but we can’t get all worked up about it. Sometimes that’s not the best thing.”
“It will be nice to have the building full and there will be a lot of emotion in the game, but we can’t get too caught up in that. We have to stick to what we’ve been doing and what’s been bringing us success.”