SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers say they have been in playoff, must-win mode for the past few months.
Sometimes it has looked like it, sometimes it has not.
In consecutive losses to Philadelphia and Toronto by a combined 12-5, these have not looked like the playoff Panthers.
The team which went 6-0-1 before stumbling against the Flyers certainly looked like a postseason contender.
Florida needs to get back to that pretty quick.
Tonight against the visiting New York Rangers would be a good start.
“They all feel like ‘must-wins’ for us and they have now for a while,” Radko Gudas said. “It is unfortunate we have had the results the past two games and while, they had the upper hand on us, we battled hard and there was a will. No one gave up until the end. Those are hard losses, bitter losses and they weigh a bit more at this time of the year.
“But we have to put them behind us and this next one is a ‘must-win’ for us and a huge opportunity for two points. These teams, like New York, are in the playoffs because they are playing hard and playing the right way. They are in front of the net, backchecking harder than their opponent. We have been doing that as well. We got into the playoff mindset and are playing a style of hockey we want to play.”
Florida has 10 games remaining including tonight’s game against New York with a big road trip starting Monday in Ottawa.
The Panthers are still chasing Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders for one of the final wild card spots with one of the three going to miss to postseason.
Florida probably needs to go 7-3 in their final games to claim one of those two spots and with games against the Rangers, Maple Leafs (twice), Carolina as well as the likes of Ottawa, Washington and Buffalo, there are plenty of opportunities to slip up.
The Panthers cannot afford many.
“We have felt that way for a few months,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We were nine points out at one point so we clawed our way back and covered a lot of ground. I have said this before and it relates to us and some other teams: You are going to lose games and it is going to feel like ‘that’s the one.’ And, as we get closer in these last 10, it will be true.
“We have to get back up and play our very best hockey. Carry the good feelings when you can and cut off the bad ones.”
Thursday night against the Leafs, Florida fell behind 3-1 after Toronto scored twice within the first three minutes of the second period.
Nick Cousins pulled them within a goal midway through the second, but a 5-on-3 power play was too much to handle and the Panthers trailed 4-2 going into the third.
Florida was shutdown for much of the final period with Toronto getting two goals toward the end to finish the Panthers off.
“If we play like that, we’re not going to win,” Sasha Barkov said. “We have to tighten up in the defensive zone, not give them that much. They are a very skilled team with a lot of offensive power. They can create chances, pretty much out of nothing. I do think we can be a lot better defensively.”
Florida did get a little help despite its loss to the Maple Leafs on Thursday in that Pittsburgh lost 3-2 in Dallas later that night keeping the playoff deficit to a point.
The Penguins have lost five of their past six allowing the Panthers not only to make up ground, but to keep pace even with a loss to the Leafs.
“That’s one reason why we’re so close now,” Gudas said. “We were nine points out in January and that is a lot of points out. We have made up a lot of ground and are only a couple out now. That is big for this group especially with the injuries and the schedule.
“I am looking forward to battling with this group the rest of the way. We don’t have 25 games left, it’s in single digits. We need to stay loose, but understand the importance of it.’’
As for the Stars winning on Thursday night, Maurice said he did not send a ‘Thank You’ text to longtime friend Pete DeBoer for helping the Panthers out.
Maurice said it was long overdue.
”I bet you in the last eight years, that may be the first time that has happened,” Maurice said with a laugh. “It is almost like I have looked at his schedule, and they will win 10 in a row, but lose the game we need him to win. But we appreciate it.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
NEW YORK RANGERS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Rangers won 2-1
- This season (New York leads 2-0): Rangers 5, Panthers 3 (Jan. 1); Rangers 6, Panthers 2 (Jan. 23)
- All-time regular season series: Rangers lead 59-32-8, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Florida at Ottawa Senators, Monday, 7 p.m.