Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers face Lightning to begin crucial five-game trip

Dmitry Kulikov said of the Panthers’ upcoming five-game trip: ‘These are the type of games where you realize if you have character or not.’
Dmitry Kulikov said of the Panthers’ upcoming five-game trip: ‘These are the type of games where you realize if you have character or not.’ AP

The Panthers left for their final road trip of the regular season Monday, a five-game jaunt that will help decide whether it truly does become their last road trip of the year.

Florida opens the trip in Tampa where the high-scoring Lightning await, ready to avenge its loss in Sunrise earlier this month.

Of the Panthers’ five games on this trip, four teams — Tampa Bay, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston — are in the playoff hunt.

Florida came into Monday trailing Boston by four points but by Tuesday it could be a five-point deficit to Ottawa.

Tough buildings and tough games await.

“We’re going to go into these games with a sense of urgency and battle for every point we can get,’’ defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said.

“There’s a lot of pressure at this time of year, a lot of emotions. Some people perform better under these conditions, some people break. These are the type of games where you realize if you have character or not. You can’t let the pressure get to you but use it to be better than the other team.’’

The Panthers head to Tampa after winning their past two and playing strong hockey this month.

Florida dominated play in losses to the Rangers and Canadiens before finally getting rewarded with wins over Detroit and Boston.

Coach Gerard Gallant likes the way his team is playing and expects them to remain in the playoff race until the end.

“We’re battling and there are two teams in front of us. It comes down to this,’’ Gallant said. “We have a game coming up in Tampa; lets go play. We’ve done our job over the last number of games. The only games we didn’t get points in were ones in which we probably played our best hockey. It’s funny how things work sometimes.’’

After this road trip ends next Tuesday in Boston, Florida closes with a five-game homestand with some of the same tough teams (Boston, Tampa Bay, Montreal) heading south.

“This is real exciting,’’ Gallant said. “Our guys are ready to compete and battle on this trip, and hopefully we’re still in the race when we get back. We want to be right in the thick of the race and have a chance.’’

Added Kulikov: “I know everyone realizes that every game counts for us. We have that awareness that every game is basically a playoff game. It’s going to be pretty tight until the end. This trip is a huge test for us.’’

BJUGSTAD OUT

A lower-body injury sustained against the Canadiens last week will likely keep center Nick Bjugstad out Tuesday.

Gallant said he hoped Bjugstad would be able to return for the second game of the road trip in Toronto.

On Saturday, Bjugstad’s minutes were limited, and he didn’t finish the game.

“He has lower-body soreness and continues to get evaluated,’’ Gallant said. “It’s been an issue for a while, the soreness, and it’s got to a point where the guy works hard every night but we had to sit him the last seven or eight minutes the other night.’’

Bjugstad, who signed a six-year contract extension in December, is tied for the team lead in points (43 with Jonathan Huberdeau) and leads the team with 24 goals.

Tuesday: Panthers at Lightning

When/where: 7:30 p.m.; Amalie Arena, Tampa.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.

Series: Panthers lead 58-47-10.

Noteworthy: The Panthers haven’t won in Tampa since 2013 but snapped a long home losing streak (2011) to the Lightning with a 4-3 win in Sunrise on March 1.

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