|Florida Panthers' Olli Jokinen (12), of Finland, and Rostislav Olesz (85), of the Czech Republic, celebrate after Jokinen scored a goal against the New York Rangers during the third period of a hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Friday, March 14, 2008. The Panthers won 3-2. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) |
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
Anything is now truly possible.
After winning their sixth consecutive game Friday evening – after stopping the Rangers unbeaten streak at 13 with a 3-2 victory before a sellout crowd at BankAtlantic Center – the Panthers find themselves smack in the middle of the playoff race for the first time in seven years.
With nine games remaining, all against Southeast Division opponents, the Panthers are now three points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and just five points behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast.
South Florida finally has a team in the playoff hunt.
“There’s a good energy going around,” said defenseman Steve Montador, who assisted on Olli Jokinen’s game-winning goal Friday night. “There’s a little bit of a buzz.”
A crowd of 19,321 witnessed that buzz against the Rangers. They watched Jokinen’s game-winning goal, Tomas Vokoun stop 32 shots, and the team’s penalty killers, specifically Vokoun, Rostislav Olesz and Karlis Skrastins, make huge plays in the final seconds while killing a penalty to secure the victory.
“The penalty killing was awesome,” said Stephen Weiss
There was also defenseman Jassen Cullimore registering a goal and adding to his team-high plus-19 and Magnus Johansson blocking four shots.
“A great team effort,” is how GM and coach Jacques Martin described win No. 6 on this current run up the standings. “A great effort from a lot of people.”
Said Jokinen, who went his eight previous games without a goal: “We battled hard. Vokoun made some big saves and we had some big penalty kills.”
While the six-game winning streak is nice, it still finds the Panthers on the outside of the playoffs looking in. And that’s why while the Panthers celebrated their victory Friday night, they were ready to focus Saturday morning on continuing their climb in the standings by preparing for Sunday’s game at BankAtlantic Center against division opponent Atlanta.
“We have to focus on the next game,” said Olesz, who scored his 13th goal of the season and made a diving clear in the final minute. “(Sunday) is going to be another big game for us. We have to be ready from the start like we were tonight.”
David Booth said the Panthers could use the standings as a bit of motivation, but added; “Six in a row for us is still not acceptable. We have to keep it up.”
“We have to put this game behind us,” he added. “We have to start to focus on Atlanta. We can’t worry about other teams. We just have to keep our game simple and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Montador said the Panthers have learned from the past when it comes to assessing their position in the standings and the playoffs.
“I think that’s been a little immature of us in the past, to weigh so much on how close we’ve been or could have been,” he said. “Once you can see the end of the season in sight, you can do a little math and wonder, ‘OK, how is this all going to unfold?’ But the important part is to work as hard as you can. It we rely purely on the energy we got tonight, we wouldn’t do ourselves justice because, obviously, we have to plan and prepare specifically for our game Sunday.
“We’re getting the job done. It hasn’t been pretty, but the good thing is the coaches have pointed that out to us. We recognize a win is great, but we could be better. I think that’s a good angle so we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves, because if we were a perfect team we wouldn’t be in this position.”
The Panthers will put Friday’s game behind them by the time they hit IncredibleIce for practice Saturday morning. Then they’ll try to tie the team record for most consecutive wins with their seventh against the Thrashers.
Keep going,” said Skrastins, “and keep growing.”