CORAL SPRINGS – And so its come to this.
Eleven weeks, 36 games.
No more breaks for holidays or the All-Star Game. No more long stretches without a game. The Panthers returned to work Monday afternoon here at IncredibleIce realizing these final 36 games will define their season.
And they’re ready for them.
“We’re confident going into these games,” said forward Radek Dvorak of home games at BankAtlantic Center this week Tuesday against the Flyers (7:30 p.m.) and Thursday against the Canadiens (7 p.m.).
“We know what works for us,” Dvorak added. “Skating, putting the puck deep, being strong on the puck, shooting the puck. If we’re doing those things, it’s tough to play against us, and we’ve been having success.”
The Panthers begin their final push with a 21-17-8 record for 50 points. They’re a point from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand on Carolina, and three points behind seventh-place with a game in hand on Buffalo.
“We just have to keep working hard,” Dvorak said. “It seems like every game different people step up. That’s what we need. Even between our lines that happens, different lines step up. Our goalies have been playing well, our defense has been playing well. Every time we play our game, we win.”
Everything will get tougher, however, in these final 36 games. The Panthers will come out of the All-Star Break facing the Flyers (25-12-9) and Montreal (27-13-6) before hitting the road over the weekend for a game Saturday on Long Island and another Tuesday in Toronto.
The good news: Twenty of the Panthers 36 games will be played at BankAtlantic Center, where the team is 10-6-5. But the Panthers will be tested in these final months, especially between Feb. 12 and March 1 when they play the Bruins, Rangers, Devils and Capitals twice, and the Blackhawks and Hurricanes.
“We did a pretty good job the first half,” said defenseman Karlis Skrastins. “But we’re not there yet. But we did some good things and it gives us hope now for every game. You know where you want to be, and when you see you can be there…well, guys believe and feel comfortable.”
The Panthers were 1-1-2 coming out of a six-day break on Jan. 16 after going 0-3-1 after a two-day Christmas break. Despite getting only four of eight points before the All-Star break, the Panthers played well in shootout losses to the Sabres and Flyers, who are third in the Eastern Conference in goals for (151).
“I thought we played a real good game against Philly last time,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “We had a good first period. They got some luck around the net, some bounces. If we can come up with that kind of effort coming out of this break, I’ll be happy.”
Ville Peltonen, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break due to a knee bruise, practiced with the team Monday and is expected to play Tuesday evening. Jay Bouwmeester, the Panthers representative in Sunday’s All-Star Game, missed practice due to traveling back from Montreal.
Dvorak said this week’s home games against Philadelphia and Montreal will be a “test.”
“The last time we played Philly, last week, we lost in a shootout, but I think we played pretty good,” he said. “Against Montreal, we played a good game in Montreal, losing in the shootout. Both those teams are on the top of the division, so it’s a great test for us.
“But we are confident going into these games. We’ve had good games against these teams and we know we can win these games.”
Skrastins called the Flyers a team with “good skills” that’s dangerous every time they have the puck.
“They’re good on the power play, short handed,” he said. “They can score. The most important thing is we have to stick to our game. Good forecheck, good backcheck. A simple, smart game. If we do that, we can beat any team.”FLYERS AT ICE
The Panthers were followed at IncredibleIce by the Flyers, who had a one-hour practice which concluded with a two-on-two drill with contact.
Flyers’ coach John Stevens said the key to the Flyers second half will be consistency.
“The big thing is we’re getting healthy for the first time all year, with the exception of Danny Briere,” he said. “Our better play comes from our attention to the defensive side of the puck, no question. We’re committed there. We’re a better team because we know we can score goals, that ties in to the penalty kill as well. If we can get our consistency to a level and do the little things better all the time, we’ll be a better team as we move along.”
Stevens said he was impressed last week when seeing the Panthers for the first time this season.
“I was impressed with their team,” he said. “They play a good defensive system. They’re defense is mobile. When they made that trade in the summer, when they moved (Olli) Jokinen, they got two quality defensemen back. Add a guy like (Bryan) McCabe, and (Jay) Bouwmeester is becoming a star in the league, and they have one of the better defensive corps in the league. It’s not surprising they’re getting production back there.
“They move the puck well as a group of forwards. Their team game is solid and they’re starting to play well. We’ve got to be ready.”PANTHER DEFENSE STILL TOPS
The Panthers’ defense come out of the All-Star break not only winning raves from Stevens, but leading the league in goals with 31. DeBoer said the turnaround began with the Jokinen trade, that brought back Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. It continued with the acquisition of McCabe and the signing of Jassen Cullimore.
“The nice thing for me as a coach is you’ve got veteran guys there,” DeBoer said. “There’s a lot of NHL games between that group. They don’t get too rattled. They give our young team some composure in difficult times by making the right play and moving the puck our of our zone and saying the right things on the bench.”
THURSDAY NIGHT REMINDER
Don’t forget: Thursday’s game at BankAtlantic Center against Montreal begins at 7 p.m.