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Panthers heading into playoffs with plenty of momentum

by Jameson Olive / Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are heading into the postseason with plenty of momentum after capping off their historic regular season with a thrilling 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at the BB&T Center on Saturday night.

The Panthers, who had already clinched their second-ever division title earlier in the week, finished the regular season 47-26-9 for a franchise-record 103 points and will face either the New York Rangers or New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“It was a great year, there’s no doubt,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “To finish the season with 103 points, if I would have told you that at training camp, I think you would have laughed. I thought the season went real well for our team. For the most part, we performed real good. But we’ll worry about that in the summer and we’ve got to move forward and keep playing real good now.”

It didn’t take long for those early-season laughs to become audible gasps, as Florida’s retooled offense, which improved from 25th in 2014-15 to eighth this season, helped propel the team to the top of the Atlantic Division while never failing to bring both home and away fans to their through dazzling dekes and powerful one-timers.

Led by future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr and budding superstar Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers boasted five 20-goal scorers for the first time in franchise history, with Barkov (28), Jagr (27), Vincent Trocheck (25), Reilly Smith (25) and Jonathan Huberdeau (20) all lighting the lamp on a regular basis.

“Yeah, we create a lot of offense and opportunities,” said Smith, who scored into an empty net with 5.5 seconds left in Saturday’s game for his career-high 50th point of the season. “I think that has been a big reason for our success this year. We have had so many different people come up and score big time goals and I feel that tonight from the start that is where our mindset was at. When you get out to a three or four nothing lead in this league it definitely makes it a lot easier.”

As the Panthers prepare to make just their fifth postseason appearance in franchise history, the team does so in far more spectacular fashion than when they lost five of their final six games to back into the playoffs in 2012. With Saturday’s victory over Carolina, the Panthers closed out their regular season with wins in seven of their final nine games while scoring at least four goals in six of those contests.

When asked whether or not he believes this momentum could carry over into the playoffs, the always even-keeled Gallant refused to let the joy of the moment created by his team’s successful regular season affect his response.

“Truthful? No, I don’t,” Gallant said with a grin. “I’d like to say yes, but no. We’ve got four days before we play our first game and we’ve got to have some good practices, get ready and make sure we’re healthy… You’ve got to win four of every seven games now. It’s going to be a battle every game.”

With the playoffs set to begin less than a week after the conclusion of their 82nd game, the only question that remains now for the Panthers is who their opponent will be in Game 83 and beyond. If the Islanders defeat the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, then the Panthers will face the Rangers in Round 1. However, if the Flyers win, Florida will face the Islanders.

At this point, though, the red-hot Panthers are accepting all challengers.

“I think they’re both pretty similar teams,” Smith said. “They both have a speedy group of forwards, they’re both very skilled. Their defense moves the puck up the ice very well and they skate the puck up very well. Either way, it’s going to be a tough matchup.

“In the end, it comes down to what we’re going to do in this room and how we’re going to play. When we’re on to of our game, we’re a tough team to beat.”

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