SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers have talked about being in the playoff mindset for weeks, gone on about each game being the biggest they will play this season.
Tuesday night against the Sabres, they actually looked like they meant it.
Sure, the Panthers came into their game with the Buffalo Sabres knowing how meaningful it was. Yet, pardon those who have watched this team all year, but no one really knew which team would show up.
The Panthers looked like a team trying to extend their season on Tuesday night as they got just enough past former Florida draftee Devon Levi and beat the Sabres 2-1.
By winning on Tuesday, the Panthers put themselves in a pretty good spot.
Not only are they holding the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, they control their own destiny with four games remaining.
As long as the Panthers handle their business, business could be good.
For a team that has been chasing for much of the season, it is a nice place to be in.
“It’s a good feeling coming to the rink,’’ Paul Maurice said. “You feel in control of something, and then you’re on a bit of a roll, so you feel good. You’re watching the scoreboard differently. We’re not watching it during the game, we’re checking it after. It’s a good feeling being in charge.”
Yes, the Panthers have been racing into the locker room following games to check the other scores from around the league.
The nice thing about the team removing the out-of-town scoreboard years ago is that the team cannot glance up and see what is going on around them.
Now, they really only have to worry about themselves.
Win and they are most definitely in. The Panthers do not have to concern themselves with what Pittsburgh does or how the Islanders are doing.
Handle it yourselves.
“Every game is important now,’’ said Brandon Montour, who assisted on both goals. “This was a big one. … We deserve to be in this position. Early on, we were on the outside looking in, and now it’s kind of turned around. All credit to the guys in this room. The guys are excited to see what we can do with the last four [games] here.”
Buffalo, a team that definitely needs some help to end their postseason drought, came to play on Tuesday.
The Sabres took a 1-0 lead in the first after an initial goal from Alex Tuch was ruled offside and held that until Aaron Ekblad cashed in on a power play chance.
The two teams swapped chances in the second period but neither team scored as Florida clamped down and put on a defensive showing that Maurice had to be smiling at throughout the postgame video review.
Florida ended up blocking 16 shots during the game — Marc Staal was credited with four of them — as the team locked things down.
Alex Lyon, the team’s newest good story, took on 40 shots but admitted later that they were so clean he did not have to do much.
”All 40 shot games are not equal and I thought tonight was as concise and as clean a game I have had,” Lyon said. “For Tage Thompson to be limited like that tonight, it was just unreal. They did a great job. A lot of credit to the d-men tonight. We did as good a job as we have done. They made my life simple.”
Florida’s defensive play was impressive indeed. When Matthew Tkachuk scored in the opening minute of the third to give the Panthers their first lead, there was not much concern in the building that they were going to give it up regardless of Buffalo’s desperation.
Even when Anton Lundell and Aaron Ekblad took penalties in the final minute giving Buffalo — with Devon Levi on the bench — a crazy 6-on-3 in the closing seconds, the Panthers stood strong and escaped with a regulation win.
“This just shows the buy-in and the commitment we have to making the playoffs,’’ Tkachuk said. “Everyone is putting it all out on the line. You could see that dedication and commitment, and everybody is just playing for each other.”
Now, to the next one.
Florida plays host to Ottawa with the likelihood that Lyon will get his fifth straight start.
Why not? He has backstopped Florida to its longest winning streak of the season.
Ride the hot hand.
“We’re still trying to battle through to the real playoffs, but the mentality has to be that this is playoffs already,’’ Lundell said. “We all know how big the (remaining) games are. We prepare for everyone the same way as if it was a playoff game.
“It’s a big win. We’re having fun now on the ice… We have fun. We support each other. We go out there and we enjoy the game of hockey.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
OTTAWA SENATORS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 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
- Season Series (Tied 1-1): Panthers 5, Senators 3 (Oct. 29); Senators 5, Panthers 2 (Mar. 27)
- Last season: Florida won 3-1
- All-time regular season series: Ottawa leads 57-43-5, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Florida at Washington, Saturday, 7 p.m.