The 82nd game of the Florida Panthers season comes Saturday night.
Usually that means players clear out their lockers in the coming days, with a lengthy offseason ahead.
Not this year. No, instead of looking toward a seemingly endless summer, the Panthers have plenty of possibilities ahead.
The Stanley Cup playoffs, not tee times and an early start at the lakeside cottage, are next on the schedule for the Panthers.
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“This is an exciting time,” Nick Bjugstad said. “Even though a lot of us young guys haven’t played in them, we’ve all watched them growing up. I can’t imagine playing in it, but I guess I had better because here we are.”
It’s almost hard to believe where the Panthers are going into Saturday’s regular-season finale against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes and where they were just a few months ago. The Panthers were 16 points back of first-place Montreal and five points out of a playoff spot on Thanksgiving before beginning quite the impressive turnaround.
On Thanksgiving, no one would have linked the Panthers with actor Kevin Spacey nor fathomed they would end up making the postseason much less taking a division title they appeared to be miles and miles away from.
“I was one of them,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, whose team won 18 of 21 from Nov. 27 to Jan. 10 en route to setting franchise records for points (101) and victories (46).
“I thought we would battle hard and compete hard, but to win our division, a lot of things went well for us. I thought we would be a good team, but I didn’t think we would win the division at the start of the year. By Christmas, I knew we had as good a team as any. We had a good second half.’’
The Panthers will open the playoffs at home next week, perhaps Thursday or Friday against a team from metro New York. After losing to the Islanders on Thursday, it appears the Rangers — a team that has made it to the conference finals in three of the past four years and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014 — will be Florida’s first-round foe.
The Panthers don’t have any control over which team they open with, whether it’s the Rangers or Islanders, but hope to go into the playoffs on a high note. Florida sleepwalked through much of its 3-1 loss in Ottawa on Thursday night, with Jaromir Jagr warning Saturday had better be different.
“We just have to make sure we regroup,” said Jagr, who scored Florida’s only goal Thursday.
“We’ve got one more game before the playoffs at home before our fans. We just have to make sure we play a lot better than [Thursday]. We have to make sure we play the best hockey before going into the playoffs. Two bad games before the playoffs, I don’t think it would be very smart.”
▪ The Panthers had only lost one game in regulation when Jagr scored a goal before Thursday. Florida is now 18-2-2 in games in which Jagr has scored.
▪ Brian Campbell had quite the night Tuesday. He not only hit a career milestone in playing in his 1,000th NHL game, but he set the franchise record for consecutive games played (374) on the night Florida clinched its division title.
“It’s a date and a time I won’t forget,” he said.
The eight-year contract Campbell signed with Chicago in 2008 (he was traded to Florida in 2011) expires this summer, so he will be a free agent.
Campbell said he told general manager Dale Tallon, who signed Campbell to that big deal in Chicago, the sides will talk about his future once this season is complete.
▪ Defenseman Steven Kampfer left Thursday’s game early in the third period after apparently sustaining a high ankle sprain. He will miss Saturday’s game.
Florida brought up rookie Mike Matheson from the AHL on emergency recall.
Kampfer’s status for the start of the playoffs is unknown.
Erik Gudbranson will also miss Saturday’s game but should be ready next week.
Saturday: Hurricanes at Panthers
When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center.
TV/radio: SUN; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WNMA 1210.
Series: Carolina leads 54-43-11.
Scouting report: These teams haven’t played since Florida won 3-2 in Raleigh for its third of what would be a franchise-record, 12-game winning streak. … The Panthers are looking to sweep the Hurricanes for the second season in a row.