The South Florida NHL team, winners of four in a row, is playing at Atlanta tonight.
The Panthers, who have won four straight and lost only once in their past 10 games, were a modest but confident bunch Monday as they wrapped up a 45-minute workout at the BankAtlantic Center and headed out on a two-game trip that concludes Thursday in Philadelphia.
The modesty is understandable. Despite closing the gap on a bunch of teams for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Florida remains at the bottom of that pack, 13th overall and six points behind eighth-place Carolina.
“We’re still not in the playoff picture,” Jokinen admitted. “Probably nobody even knows we’re six points out with two games in hand, because there’s so many teams between us. But sooner or later they’ll find out.”
Breaking through against Atlanta, which has won all five meetings against Florida this season, might persuade some doubters. The Panthers are 0-6-1 at Philips Arena over the past two seasons and have been outscored 20-6, including two shutouts.
However, since Dec. 2, the last time the teams met, Florida is 19-11-8, and Atlanta is 17-17-6.
SUNRISE â€” Wayne Gretzky, who at one point pursued Jacques Martin for the Phoenix coaching job that he ultimately filled himself, led off the video tribute marking Martin’s 1,000th NHL coaching appearance Saturday night.
Panthers owner Alan Cohen has said that both Phoenix and the New York Rangers were pursuing Martin before Cohen hired him to coach the Panthers in May 2004. After the lockout ultimately canceled the 2004-05 season, Gretzky, a part-owner of the Coyotes, took the Phoenix job.
Also featured in the tribute was Panthers broadcaster Denis Potvin, who played youth hockey with Martin when both were growing up in Ottawa. A team picture featuring both was displayed on the scoreboard at the BankAtlantic Center.
The 12th coach to reach the milestone, Martin tied his longtime mentor, Roger Neilson, on the all-time list.
Coach Martin joins Goalie Ed Belfour in hitting milestones this year.
There was also this odd fact about Saturday’s game.
Ville Peltonen squelched any hope of a Lightning comeback, stretching the lead to 5-1 with the team’s first-ever successful penalty shot at home with 12:06 left in the third period.
“It was about time, I guess,” Peltonen joked of the milestone.
Isn’t it weird they never accomplished this in team home history. I hadn’t seen a successful penalty shot in 20 years either. Then I almost entirely stopped watching Hockey. So at least I have an excuse.
At present the Panthers are trailing by six points for the last playoff spot.
It’s March, and the Panthers are streaking. If that sounds familiar, it should.
It was only last March that this team put together a six-game win streak, went 10-4-1 and raised its fans’ hopes before losing five of its last nine games and finishing seven points behind eighth-place Tampa Bay.
Saturday’s 6-2 romp over Tampa Bay stretched the current winning streak to a season-best four straight and produced positive vibes in the post-game locker room.
But it was with the understanding a daunting task looms.
“We put ourselves in a big hole,” captain Olli Jokinen said.
While Florida remains 13th in the East and must climb over five teams in their final 16 games, there are reasons to believe this quest can succeed where last year’s failed:
When Martin set 90 points as this year’s goal in mid-February, it seemed unreachable. Now, if the Panthers can duplicate their 7-1-2 run during their past 10 games, they would need only seven points in their final six games of the season to get there.
The task begins Tuesday in Atlanta, where the Panthers are 0-6-1 during the past two seasons, including 0-3 this season.
“We’ve given them 10 points already. That’s enough,” Jokinen said, referring to the Panthers’ 0-5 mark against the Thrashers, whom they last played Nov. 30.
I’m not convinced the Panthers are ready to be a playoff team. A win against Atlanta tonight may change my opinion.
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