TORONTO -- It was just a few weeks ago when the Panthers were laughed at for claiming their goal was still to make the playoffs.
Well, they’re still a long shot to make the postseason, but at least the Panthers are in the conversation.
Florida has crawled out of the NHL’s basement by winning four in a row and six of seven, the latest a 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday at Air Canada Center.
The victory pulled Florida within six points of the Leafs for the final playoff slot in the East. With 47 games remaining, there are plenty of points out there.
If they keep playing like this, they should make things interesting.
“We're looking for progress, for our team to get better and for consistency in our play,’’ said interim coach Peter Horachek, whose team is on its longest winning streak since winning five in a row in March 2012.
“Our guys are starting to believe if they play the way we need to, we’ll have success. I have not brought up standings, haven’t brought up where we are or aren’t. I brought up where we are today and how we want to play today. Our guys are doing a good job.’’
For the third time during this run, the Panthers took advantage of a team coming off a game the night before.
Florida has claimed wins in Detroit (after the Wings won at New Jersey the previous night), Montreal (a win against the Islanders) and Toronto (a loss in Pittsburgh).
The Panthers, a team used to being the team playing on back-to-back nights against rested opponents, has cashed in by playing an aggressive style while getting good goaltending.
Scott Clemmensen made 28 saves as he won his third consecutive start. The Panthers took a 3-0 lead into the third period to help Clemmensen out although he held his own in defending the net.
“I think we’re learning how to win, how to play with a lead,’’' Clemmensen said. “The more you do it, the more confidence you build. You become more comfortable in these situations. We’re expecting to win.’’
The Panthers led 3:29 in when Tomas Fleischmann picked off a loose puck at center ice and beat James Reimer (20 saves).
Florida padded its lead in the second with Sean Bergenheim sweeping in the puck off a heavy shot from rookie Aleksander Barkov.
With 3:10 left in the second, Brad Boyes made it 3-0 after taking a gift from Dion Phaneuf deep in the Toronto zone and driving in on Reimer.
The Toronto goalie made the initial save on Boyes and even stopped Bergenheim's chop at it. But Boyes buried it on the third try, and the Panthers held on despite Toronto coming fast in the third. Clemmensen made 12 of 13 saves over the final 20 minutes.
“Our focus is one game and we’ve had a good opportunity to jump on a bad schedule for the opponent,’’ Scottie Upshall said. “We’re playing a pretty simple game. We’re starting to have an identity.’’
Former Panthers coach Kevin Dineen surfaced Monday as the new coach of the Canadian national women’s hockey team.
Dineen, fired on Nov. 8 after three years with Florida, is still under contract by the Panthers and will be paid by the team.
“It’s fantastic. It’s too bad it didn't work out here for him, but this wasn’t the end of his coaching days, for sure,’’ Florida's Erik Gudbranson said. “I think he’ll fit that program well.’’
Dineen replaces Dan Church, who abruptly left the team last week with the Olympics a few weeks away.
“This has been a whirlwind few days, but when this opportunity presented itself I immediately jumped at it,” Dineen told reporters before running his first Team Canada practice in Calgary.
• The Panthers were without Jonathan Huberdeau (foot) and Jesse Winchester (hand) on Tuesday.
Huberdeau has missed two consecutive games after blocking a shot with his right foot.
Winchester was sent back to South Florida to have his hand looked at after hurting it blocking a shot in Montreal.
Gudbranson returned after missing most of Sunday’s game after being sliced on the leg by an errant skate. Gudbranson said he didn’t ask how many stitches he took, “but it was a lot.”