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The Florida Panthers Are Back on Track — And Back in Business

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Florida Panthers goaltender Alex Lyon is congratulated by teammates Givani Smith and Josh Mahura after the Panthers beat the Minnesota Wild 5-3 on Saturday night in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE — Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice has not seemed to like the phrase ‘turning a corner’ when talking about his team’s latest success.

While the Panthers are on a five-game point streak (4-0-1) and have won seven of their past 10 (7-2-1), Maurice likes to say his team “is just growing.”

So, what is making a difference now?

”All of the earlier parts, I can sort of understand but in January we just started playing harder,’’ Maurice said.

“It is simple as that. And guys got healthy, we started getting saves, the power play heated up. The penalty kill has been better. Everything is getting better.

“But I will say, we have been playing harder that we were a month ago. We played hard, but everyone in the NHL plays hard. There is a different level of compete that goes into putting a run together. They are competing hard.”

Regardless of the terminology, the Panthers certainly seem to have something cooking these days.

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The Panthers gutted out a 5-3 win over the visiting Wild on Saturday night, doing so without the services of Aaron Ekblad and Sam Bennett for large chunks of it.

Florida also played without Gus Forsling in the second and watched Brandon Montour get slapped with a 10-minute misconduct in the third for apparently ignoring demands from the officials to keep the chirps to a minimum.

Maurice, who was just fined $25,000 for his postgame comments critical of the refs on Tuesday, was not going down that road again Saturday.

Although anyone watching the game certainly knows how he felt about it — and the choice language he used to express it with the officials.

We are not all trained lip-readers but we know a barrage of F-bombs when we see them.

“I’m in no position financially to answer,” Maurice said with a grin. “I can say what I want to (the officials), I just can’t say it to (the media).

“There was concern there was chirping between the benches and there would be a 10-minute misconduct. Brandon was just waiting for the puck to drop and they picked the best player out of all the chirpers.”

Maurice bought himself 25-grand worth of goodwill from the Florida faithful and the more he stands up for his team, the less vitriol seems to be aimed his way.

Of course, the team winning games and seemingly straightening things out a bit helps in that department.

Right now, the Panthers are playing their best hockey of the season at a time when they desperately need to.

Following Saturday night’s win, the Panthers are two points out of the final playoff spot in the conference although they have some games to make up.

“We have the confidence that whomever we play against, if we have the execution, we’re going to pull things out,’’ Anton Lundell said.

Florida pulled out a win no one would have expected them to a few weeks ago despite Maurice kinda-sorta disagreeing with that sentiment.

Matthew Tkachuk, however, did agree the Panthers of November and December probably lose on Saturday night.

“At the beginning of the season, no, we’re not grinding that one out,” he told FHN.

“Our team, right now, is just completely different. We have the energy and no one has to do anything out of their comfort-zone. Everyone is doing what they are great at and we are starting to figure things out and playing to our identity.”

Truth is, the Panthers would have likely folded in past thirds when a team like Minnesota made it a one-goal game on two separate occasions in the period as it did on Saturday.

“I don’t want to sell this group short, but we came off the road and we have played well which is not easy to do,” Maurice said. “We do have that in us. As far of style of game? No, not a chance.”

Florida, which is minus-19 in scoring differential in third periods this season, matched Minnesota each time it made a comeback and closed within a goal.

The Wild is also the first team holding a playoff spot to lose to the Panthers in some time.

Beating up on the Detroits and Montreals is great, but the Panthers have to get more wins against the Wilds of the world.

And, they’ll get that opportunity to see what is what.

Florida has four games left before their All-Star break with all four against playoff-type teams.

Two are on the road (New York and Pittsburgh) and two are at home (Los Angeles, Boston) with all four on back-to-back nights.

It is certainly a challenge.

But that is exactly what Saturday night was.

It was a trial and the Panthers got the verdict they wanted.

And needed.

Goalie Alex Lyon once again filled in admirably for Sergei Bobrovsky, making 29 saves and keeping his team in this one despite everything not going their way.

Thanks in great part of the poise of Lyon, the Panthers never trailed on Saturday night.

“His personality is what you see in the net,’’ Maurice said. “He’s scrambling, he’s fighting for pucks. Every time he makes a save the bench goes crazy. It seems to be right now, very possibly, the energy that we need.

“A guy like that, playing the way he’s playing… It’s perfect time for him to come in doing what he’s doing.”

INJURY UPDATES

While many were expecting the worst when it came to news regarding Ekblad and Bennett, Maurice said he would not even characterize them as injured.

Both players have what were called upper-body concerns — with Maurice saying both just tightened up and blamed his team’s heavy schedule for it.

”I won’t even call them ‘day-to-day’,’’ Maurice said. “They may be ready for New York, we just couldn’t get them back into (Saturday’s) game.”

Florida did not arrive back from Montreal until a little before rush hour started on Friday morning; they have been flying from one place to another for the past few weeks and Maurice said he was surprised players have not sustained such fatigue-based problems before.

“This is all a function of what we are going through and I am shocked it did not happened before,’’ Maurice said. “We got off the plane at 4:30 in the morning (Friday) and you get these kind of over-use injuries playing our kind of schedule.”

The Panthers will fly to New York on Sunday for a Monday night date with the Rangers at the Garden.

PANTHERS ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS AT NEW YORK RANGERS

  • When: Monday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
  • 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 (Rangers lead 1-0): Rangers 5, Panthers 3 (Jan. 1)
  • All-time regular season series: Rangers lead 58-32-8, 6 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m.

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