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Improving On Their Situation

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
The Cats post All-Star game push towards the playoffs starts Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com

 
The Panthers mad rush to make the playoffs will officially start its final push Wednesday evening at BankAtlantic Center. And the Panthers are going to have plenty of company in their attempt to make the playoffs in what should be the final, dizzying, nine weeks of the season.
 
Think about it: The Panthers are only three points out of the top of the Southeast Division, and only nine points separates the current sixth seed (Pittsburgh) in the playoffs from the Panthers, who are idling in 12th.
 
“How many teams are in the same situation?” asked GM and coach Jacques Martin after Tuesday’s practice at IncredibleIce. “That’s the key. Look around the league. It seems like it’s so tight.”
 
While Detroit is running away with the Western Conference – they’re 22 points ahead of eighth-place Colorado – the east, with the arguable exception of Ottawa, is crowded with contenders.
 
The Sabres, who visit BankAtlantic for Wednesday’s game, are 13th in the conference but only six points from the eighth spot. And while the Islanders are eighth in the east, they’re only five points from first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division.
 
“That’s why when you’re talking about making trades, I talk to a lot of other GM’s, and it’s all the same thing,” Martin said. “(Almost) every team is looking to acquire a top six forward or top four defenseman.
 
“In my talks with GM’s, they’re all looking. There’s no sellers. They’re looking to buy and we’re all looking to buy the same thing.”
 
While the Panthers can crunch the numbers any way they want, they’re best shot of getting into the playoffs is to win the Southeast, especially when one considers that, if the playoffs were to start today, division-leading Carolina would qualify for the playoffs despite having less points than the Islanders or Rangers.
 
The question is how do the Panthers, who have not played for long stretches this season with any consistency or focus, reach the playoffs in these last 31 games of the season?
 
“Hopefully,” Martin began, “getting some people back will be a factor.”
 
After getting defenseman Cory Murphy back after a 30-game absence prior to the All-Star break, Martin said Tuesday forward Jozef Stumpel, who missed seven games with a shoulder injury, and defenseman Branislav Mezei, out nine games with a hand injury, will be available to dress Wednesday against the Sabres. Martin added he hopes to have forward Rostislav Olesz (hand) back within two weeks and possibly forward Ville Peltonen (leg).
           
The injured players, Martin said, should help the Panther specialty teams while helping the team to maintain more consistency.
 
“Early in the year our power play was good,” Martin said. “I think our power play helped us win some games. Hopefully, we’ll get back our specialty teams, especially our penalty killing. We have to be better. Hopefully, getting Stumpel back and Peltonen…those players are good killing penalties. That will help. Our specialty teams could make a difference down the road.”
 
As well as playing with more urgency.
 
“The last week (before the All-Star break), I think we had a strong game against Ottawa. I thought we played pretty well against Edmonton, we controlled the game, but we had a couple bad breaks. The power play goal, and a bad goal in the last minute.
           
“I think we have to play with urgency and desperation and get different people to raise their game. It has to happen.”
 
NOTES
The Sabres, who play Tuesday night in Tampa, could be without Maxim Afinogenov, who is nursing a slight tear in his groin. Afinogenov, who’s missed 10 games, is skating and traveling with the team…Gregory Campbell goes into Wednesday’s game for the Panthers on a two-game goal scoring streak…Olli Jokinen has points in six of his last seven games…In 15 career games against the Sabres, Stephen Weiss has five goals and eight assists…

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