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Florida Panthers Now Fending Off Playoff-Hungry Teams

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Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling smiles as he celebrates his empty-net goal against the Arizona Coyotes with Aaron Ekblad, Sasha Barkov and Sam Reinhart on Jan. 2 in Tempe. The Coyotes visit Sunrise tonight. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

At this time last year, the Florida Panthers were on the outside of the playoff race, trying to claw their way in, many times, by beating teams safely holding a postseason spot.

With three games before the All-Star break, the Panthers are now the team others are trying to climb through to either hold onto a precarious playoff position or get back into it.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing.

Florida is in a comfortable spot right now, holding a five-point lead with two games in hand over the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second seed in the Atlantic Division.

Perhaps Florida was a bit too comfortable in its standing after a nine-game winning streak turned into a four-game losing streak.

But a meltdown in the first of the Panthers’ five-game stretch against teams in wild-card contention forced them to wake up a bit.

“We’ve had Minnesota, these guys, Arizona, Pittsburgh, and the Islanders to finish,” coach Paul Maurice said after Florida’s 4-1 win in Nashville on Monday night.

“They’re all the exact same team. They’re exactly where we were last year scratching and clawing, so we got to be on our best and it’s a good thing for us to be going through right now.

“We’ve got some injuries and we’ve certainly got some illness and sickness, and the other team has the emotional advantage on us coming into all of these games, and then we got to find out a way to win.”

All five of those teams are in or within six points of a wild-card spot.

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And, for a team like that, an emotional win against a Top 10 team heading into the All-Star break could be a turning point in its season.

The start of the Panthers’ surge to the playoffs could arguably be found in their emotional 4-3 overtime win over the Boston Bruins last Jan. 28.

The emotions in the locker room were palpable that day after Sasha Barkov tied it with three seconds left, and Sam Reinhart won it 17 seconds into overtime.

But that game is more responsible for the emergence of Alex Lyon than anything after the 38-save performance made way to the eight-game stretch that helped Florida break into the playoffs at the end of the season.

The Panthers now find themselves in the same spot the Bruins were for some of these teams.

Especially the three they have left before the break.

The Arizona Coyotes come into Wednesday’s clash with the Panthers two points behind Nashville for the second wild-card spot in the West with two games in hand.

Florida will then head on the road going into the All-Star break with games against a Penguins team five points out of a playoff spot and an Islanders team three points back.

Each comes into its wild card race on different terms.

Arizona is one of the youngest teams in the NHL and are a playoff contender thanks in part to the emergence of Connor Ingram in net.

Pittsburgh is the oldest team in the league with a ton of star power that is not quite reaching the heights it should be.

The Penguins are still upset about not taking care of business in the final weeks of last season, allowing the Panthers to claw right over them.

New York is a motivated bunch after an underwhelming first half led them to canning Lane Lambert and replacing him with the fiery Patrick Roy.

The Panthers will have to find a way to beat these teams coming in with an emotional edge and possibly do so without Barkovwho has missed the past three games with a lower-body injury.

Florida should have top defenseman Gus Forsling back on Wednesday after he missed Monday’s game in Nashville due to family leave.

Regardless of who’s in and who’s out, that win is a good place to find the effort needed to win against teams like the Predators and Coyotes.

“We were missing two big pieces with Barkov and Forsling out, so we knew it was going to be a hard, grind game,” Sam Bennett said.

“Guys were stepping up and playing bigger roles and bigger minutes, and that’s all you can ask for.”

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ON DECK

ARIZONA COYOTES @ FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank 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, NHL app
  • Season Series — At Arizona: Panthers 4, Coyotes 1 (Jan 2). At Florida: Wednesday.
  • Last Season: Tied 1-1
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Tied, 20-20, 3 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Friday at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.

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