The Panthers landed back in warm South Florida on Saturday poised to continue their recent surge fresh off a wintry four-game Canadian trip.
Winners of seven of its past nine, Florida (14-18-5) plays its next five games — beginning Monday night against instate rival Tampa Bay — at BB&T Center.
“We played well, we played hard,” forward Shawn Matthias said. “Just got to keep it going now that we’re home for a while. The most important thing is to make sure this homestand we’re playing our best and getting a lot of wins and trying to get back up there in the standings.”
Facing their Eastern Conference neighbors above the border, the Panthers went 3-1 while pulling within seven points of a playoff spot with 45 games remaining.
Winnipeg snapped Florida’s five-game winning streak — its longest since March 2012 — in a 5-2 victory Friday night. The Jets scored a pair of power-play goals over a 33-second span in the first period, capitalizing on six Florida penalties (eight overall).
Over their current nine-game stretch, the Panthers made it a habit to avoid the penalty box, averaging 3.9 trips.
“Just throw it right out the window,” said interim coach Peter Horachek, who noted the sloppy play. “For me, that’s how I look at it. … What I see when guys get tired is they revert away from the system. Then I know they’re not in a good place right now. They were in a survival mode.”
Both Panthers’ losses in the past nine matchups have come on the second night of a back-to-back.
That game couldn’t take away from the many positives, particularly the one that developed at goaltender. Scott Clemmensen has filled in admirably for the injured Tim Thomas, allowing just six goals in four starts (all wins).
“We’re obviously in a position we’re trying to climb our way back up,” Thomas said. “That road trip was an awesome step forward for us. I was happy for Clemmer because I know he’s a good goalie, and he deserves to get some wins under his belt. He did, and I’m happy to see the whole team step up and play the way they did.”
Tampa Bay, Florida’s next opponent, initially faltered when Steven Stamkos went down with a broken right leg.
The Lightning has regrouped, having won four in a row. They sit three points behind the Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Panthers have lost five of seven to Tampa Bay since last year, including two games in October.
Horachek has already moved on from the road trip and is solely focused on Monday’s game. The team will get a little break for Christmas after it.
“That road trip means nothing if we don’t have a good homestand,” Matthias said. “The next couple weeks here are important, and that’s going to make or break our season really.”
• Thomas, who was eligible to come off injured reserve Friday in Winnipeg, practiced Sunday with the team.
The 39-year-old has missed five games with a groin injury. Before this third injury stint, Thomas had started 14 of 15 games.
“It felt pretty good,” Thomas said. “[Sunday’s] the first day I didn’t feel any pain, so it was a big step forward. Where it goes from here will be a group decision.”