We will not know if it is a case of ‘too little, too late’ for the Florida Panthers for a little while, but we do know that they are playing their best hockey of the season right now.
For all the talk about this team needing to get their game together and start piling up some wins, well, they are doing that right now.
In throttling the Montreal Canadiens 6-2 on Thursday night, the Panthers have now won six of their past nine games and have a four-game point streak going into Saturday night’s game against the Wild in Sunrise.
Florida has not fared well against teams holding playoff position — the Panthers did get a point out of Toronto on Tuesday — but it will have five more kicks at that particular can before the All-Star break.
The toughest week of the season is upcoming.
The Panthers may have to go through that stretch without their starting goalie after losing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a lower-body injury just 2:01 in against the Canadiens.
Alex Lyon came out in relief for his first NHL appearance with them this season.
Lyon was good from the start, ended with 23 saves and kept the Canadiens at bay while his teammates scored five goals in the second — including four off the power play — to salt this one away.
“It was awesome and rewarding because that’s why you stay ready,” Lyon said afterward. “I just tried to do my job.”
Florida also lost veteran center Eric Staal when he was crushed by former Florida defenseman Mike Matheson.
While the Panthers (especially Matthew Tkachuk) came after Matheson once the game was out of reach, teammates said Staal asked them specifically not to go out there and play a revenge game.
He just wanted them to get two points and get home.
“It was great seeing everyone stick up for each other,” Sam Bennett said. “We are a tight group, saw Staal get hit there and didn’t like it too much. Guys did not like it and got fired up. It’s awesome to see, shows how tight we are and how we’ll stick up for each other.”
Said Paul Maurice: “They take care of each other out there. They were snarling when something like that happens. You don’t ever like to see it happen in a game especially to your own players. But you can see the chemistry in the room when something like that happens. You try to be disciplined because we can’t be running around; we have to win games. But we take care of our own.’’
The Panthers come home two points back of Pittsburgh for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference although they have played three more games than the Penguins.
That could set the Panthers even further out of the playoff race but that, too, is far from being decided.
Florida is realistically looking at getting the final wild card spot what with Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay all locked in to the top three in the division.
Continuing to round up some points before the All-Star break later this month will certainly help.
Florida has five games left before a little R&R is coming — and they may need it after this slate.
All five of its upcoming opponents hold playoff spots with games upcoming against the Wild, Rangers, Penguins, Kings and Bruins.
To make matters more challenging, four of those games will be played on back-to-back nights.
After Saturday’s game against the Wild, the Panthers will play on Monday and Tuesday, and then again on Thursday and Friday.
If the Panthers can keep up their winning ways against this juggernaut which awaits, well, maybe they’ve got something cooking.
”I think we have found our game a little bit,’’ Bennett said. “We are starting to find some confidence and are definitely having fun playing hockey right now.”
But when Maurice says this is the toughest stretch of his team’s season, he’s not bluffing.
Florida’s playoffs have already started.
The Panthers have to win the games in front of them whether its the rebuilding Canadiens or the powerhouse Bruins if they hope to go past Game No. 82.
At least they are trending in the right direction which is not something said around here a few weeks ago.
“They are playing for each other, man,” Maurice said. “They are playing hard for each other.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
MINNESOTA WILD AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 6 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: Florida won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Minnesota leads 18-8-2, 1 tie
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at New York Rangers, 7 p.m.