CORAL SPRINGS – With six games remaining in the regular season, Stephen Weiss
was trying early Monday afternoon to put the Panthers season thus far into perspective.
Weiss, standing in a hallway at IncredibleIce after an one hour practice, said, “We’ve been in 30th place, we’ve been in fifth place, we’ve been in 10th place, we’ve kind of been all over the place.”
But in these final two weeks of what has been a sometimes long, strange season, the Panthers are well aware they can end the season and the frustration of a franchise with a place in the playoffs.
“We’re just hungry to play in the playoffs,” said Weiss, as the Panthers prepare for a three-game homestand beginning Tuesday evening at BankAtlantic Center against the Ottawa Senators.
“I haven’t played in the playoffs at this level. I want to get there and see what it’s all about. I’ve been here for a while and want to do it for an organization that’s been good to me.
Nathan Horton agreed.
“We haven’t been in this situation since I’ve been in the NHL, so it’s definitely nice to be in it and have a chance to get back to the playoffs.”
The Panthers, a point behind eighth-place Montreal in the Eastern Conference and two points behind the seventh-place Rangers (who play host Monday night to New Jersey), come into the Ottawa game on a two-game winning streak. After hitting bottom Wednesday in Buffalo after a 5-3 loss, the Panthers won 4-2 Thursday at Philadelphia and 6-3 Saturday in Dallas.
“We’re in the sprint phase,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer. “We talk all season about the season being a marathon. We’re in the bell lap now, and it’s a sprint to the finish.”
After struggling offensively the previous three weeks, the Panthers have scored 13 goals in their last three games and have steadily gained confidence.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt…winning and losing streaks are about confidence,” DeBoer said. “From goaltending to the power play to everything. When you’re on a losing streak, you’re not getting the big save, your power play is not cashing in. When you’re (on a winning streak), those things are happening for you.”
Despite winning only one of eight games before their current two-game winning streak, Weiss said the Panthers remained upbeat and confident.
The mood of the dressing room, Weiss said, has “always been good…even when we were struggling.”
“I think we were playing good hockey,” he added. “We stayed positive, we kept sticking with the plan. We knew eventually we’ll get a bounce or two our way and turn the tide, and that was the case the last two games.”
Yes, Horton said, the loss in Buffalo was tough. “But we thought we played pretty good most of the game,” he said. “We knew we had even tougher games coming up the rest of the road trip. We worked hard in Philly and Dallas…we kind of regrouped.”
And now it’s come to this. Six games. The next three at BankAtlantic Center against Ottawa, Atlanta and Pittsburgh.
“It’s that time of year,” DeBoer said. “If you can’t get your adrenaline going this time of year, there’s something wrong with you.”
Said Horton: “It’s definitely exciting for us. We all want to get in the playoffs.”ANDERSON STAYS IN GOAL
Just prior to last week’s road trip, DeBoer said goaltender Tomas Vokoun would likely play the remainder of the games. But after Vokoun allowed three, third-period goals in Buffalo, DeBoer decided to go with Anderson less than 24 hours later in Philadelphia.
The move helped the Panthers to consecutive wins for the first time since March 1-3 and snapped a three-game losing streak. In victories at Philadelphia and Dallas, Anderson has stopped 72 of 77 shots.
DeBoer said Anderson, who gave the Panthers a huge lift earlier in the year when starting eight consecutive games, would be back in goal Tuesday against the Senators.
DeBoer said his decision to go with Anderson after the Buffalo game was “real tough.”
“Tomas is a professional, he works hard every day…he’s an honest guy, a veteran,” he said. “Those aren’t easy decisions. But, again, we have to make those decisions to win games at this point. At that point, I really thought we were spinning our wheels. We won one of seven or eight and I felt the team was playing fairly well but we weren’t winning. We had to do something.
“It’s about wins and we’re going to start (in goal) down the stretch whoever we think can give us the best opportunity to win, just like we’re going to dress whoever gives us the best opportunity to win.”
Anderson is 2-1 in his career against the Senators with a .940 save percentage and 2.06 goals against. In his last game against the Senators, Anderson stopped 35 of 38 shots and Stephen Weiss
scored with 9.1 seconds remaining in overtime Dec. 8 to give the Panthers a 4-3 victory at Ottawa. SENS STILL PLAYOFF ELIGIBLE
They may be 10 points out of a playoff spot, but the Senators haven’t given up hope of making the post-season. They’re 10-3 in their last 13 games and coming into BankAtlantic off a 3-0 victory Sunday over the Lightning.
“We’re going to keep fighting right to the end,” defenseman Chris Phillips told OttawaSenators.com
“We still aren’t eliminated mathematically,” said coach Cory Clouston. “Obviously that’s something that we would like to get, but our focus is one game at a time and whatever happens, happens.”
The Sens have a couple players who have historically done well against the Panthers. Dany Heatley has 30 points (17 goals) in 26 career games against the Panthers and Daniel Alfredsson has 44 points (20 goals) in 46 games against Florida.
Brian Elliott has played well in goal for the Senators, who have struggled with the position earlier in the season. He’s 16-6-3 with a 2.64 goals against and he’s coming off his first NHL shutout.SCOREBOARD WATCHING
The seventh-place Rangers, only two points ahead of the Panthers in the east, host the Devils this evening. The Rangers are trying to snap a two-game losing streak, the Devils trying to prevent a season-high five game losing streak.NOTES
The Panthers are 2-3-2 in their last seven homes games…Jay Bouwmeester, who struggled offensively earlier in the month, has four points (two goals) in his last four games…Remember, Sunday’s start time against Pittsburgh at BankAtlantic Center is 5 p.m…