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Still In The Hunt

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun (29) blocks a shot by Columbus Blue Jackets' Derek Dorsett (15) as Jay Bouwmeester (4) defends in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Saturday, March 21, 2009. The Blue Jackets won 3-1. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


The Panthers likely awoke Sunday morning with a myriad of feeling about their place in the Eastern Conference with 10 games remaining in the regular season.

Disappointment?

You bet, especially after another uncharacteristic meltdown Saturday evening in the third period against the Blue Jackets.

Frustration?

You think? During a five-game homestand, which ends Monday against the Hurricanes, the Panthers have been able to extract only three of a possible eight points and have let third period leads slip away against Tampa and Columbus.

Incredibly fortunate?

They better. Despite losing six of their last eight games – despite earning only six of a possible 16 points – the Panthers are only one point from eighth and the free-falling Canadiens.

Is this what they wanted? No. Have they played like a playoff team during the course of the last eight games? No. But the Panthers remain a playoff contender and, despite their recent woes, they are in control of their destiny.

And no game is more important than Monday’s against Southeast Division-rival Carolina. “It’s a four-pointer,” said coach Peter DeBoer. A victory Monday jumps the Panthers past Montreal into eighth and leaves them only three points behind the Hurricanes.

Twenty points remain on the table, and only six points Sunday morning separated ninth-from-fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The Panthers have been tentative in their past few games, sometimes at the start and sometimes at the end. But DeBoer has preached his team “embrace” the playoff race; to appreciate how far they’ve come the past 72 games and enjoy the fact they’re in a position to take this franchise where they haven’t been since 2000.

“The good thing is we’re losing games because we’re not playing our best,” said forward Gregory Campbell recently. “If we were losing games because we’re playing our best, we’d be concerned that other teams are better than us. But I don’t think that’s the case.”

Take Saturday, for example. Radek Dvorak thought the Panthers played one of their best games recently in all three zones. But when the Panthers had scoring chances, they couldn’t convert.

“We should have been up 3-0,” said Dvorak of Saturday’s game.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Yet, the Panthers are the keepers of their fate. Not the Hurricanes, not the Canadiens, not the Rangers. But to make it to the playoffs, the Panthers are going to have to correct a few things beginning Monday against Carolina, who comes into the BankAtlantic Center on a three-game winning streak.

For the Panthers, it begins with scoring. It’s no coincidence that when the Panthers were zipping up the standings earlier in the year, their defense was contributing offensively on a nightly basis.

The Panthers defense still leads the league in scoring – 43 goals through Sunday – but those goals are not coming as often as they used to. The Panthers have two goals from their blue line in the last nine games, and both came March 10 against the Penguins. Over the last 20 games, the defense has only seven goals, with four coming from Bryan McCabe and Keith Ballard.

For the Panthers, they need help from the blue line, specifically Jay Bouwmeester. While steady defensively, Bouwmeester has only one goal (six assists) in his last 21 games.

DeBoer realizes Bouwmeester’s importance, and also believes he’s close to turning the corner.

“Bo gives you what he has every night,” said DeBoer recently. “Like most goal scorers, he’s gone through some slumps and parts of the year when everything he touches turn to gold.

“For me, he’s right around the corner from turning it back around. For me, there’s no doubt, there’s a direct correlation between when he’s producing offense and we’re winning. On a team, if we have a challenge, it’s to score goals. We need goals from all those guys.”

Another area the Panthers will have to improve in is scoring in the third period. The Panthers have been outscored 10-1 in the third period of their last six games, and that isn’t going to earn anyone a playoff spot with 10 games remaining.

But the Panthers are still in the hunt, still right there. And they should get a boost Monday evening with the return of Nathan Horton, who’s missed the past six games with a finger injury.

“We’re all hungry in here,” said McCabe recently.

The Panthers hope to begin feeding that hunger Monday at BankAtlantic Center against the Hurricanes.
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