With road victories over teams such as Anaheim, San Jose and Detroit, people around the NHL have taken notice of the Panthers this season.
Florida came into Wednesday three points in back of Boston and Toronto for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers were ranked eighth overall in the conference with 26 points in a league-low 23 games.
If the Panthers want to continue their ascent in the standings, they need to take care of the teams below them.
Yes, a team that finished at or near the bottom of the NHL standings the past two seasons now believes it had better get all four points from its current two-game homestand against Columbus and Buffalo.
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It won’t come easy.
Florida, which beat Detroit 4-3 on Tuesday night, already is 0-1 against the Blue Jackets after losing to the last-place team in a forgettable game Monday.
“We felt like we let two points slip away [Monday],” goalie Roberto Luongo said after making 38 saves Tuesday.
“We didn’t want to go home empty-handed because that’s not acceptable for this team. … You don’t want to let things creep into the team. It was important to have a bounce-back.”
Columbus was struggling mightily when it survived a slow start of its own and beat Florida 2-1 thanks in part to Boone Jenner’s third-period goal and more strong goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Jackets, who haven’t played since, have now won just one of their previous seven games and have lost 15 of 18.
“We have to come back and be ready for a good Columbus team we know is going to battle,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “They just beat us the other night, so we have to be ready to play and get those two points.”
The team’s next opponent, Buffalo, looked destined for one of the top picks in the draft lottery before getting hot.
The Sabres were a horrid 3-13-2 before winning six of their past seven going into Thursday’s game at Tampa Bay.
Goalie Al Montoya said Monday’s loss was a lesson for a Panthers team that might struggle with even a moderate amount of success because of its lack of maturity.
Florida needs to handle the expectations of a playoff-caliber team while also realizing there is no easy win in the NHL.
With some of the upsets they have pulled over the past two seasons, the Panthers should know that better than most.
“Sometimes you’re flat and don’t know why,” Willie Mitchell said. “We were definitely flat in Columbus but skated well [in Detroit] from the drop of the puck.”
THE ‘D’ MAN
Aaron Ekblad stood at center ice during the national anthem Tuesday night soaking in the sights of an arena he grew up in yet was on its ice for the first time.
Ekblad, 18, saw the many banners and the retired numbers of Hall of Famers he already knew by heart. Across the ice from him were some of his heroes from his youth wearing that iconic red kit.
If Ekblad was overwhelmed by it all, he didn’t let on.
“It was pretty cool looking up at all the banners. This is a pretty storied building,” said Ekblad, who grew up across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.
“Then you look across the ice and see [Pavel] Datsyuk, [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Johan] Franzen and I’m playing against them. That’s pretty cool. I thought we handled it well.”
Ekblad, the first pick of the 2014 draft, rewarded the dozens of friends and family members at Joe Louis Arena by scoring his second goal in two games to give Florida a 4-1 lead in the third period.
Detroit scored twice in the final 10 minutes Tuesday, cutting Florida’s lead to one. Ekblad’s insurance goal turned into the game winner.
After the game, he handed over the stick he scored with to his parents for safekeeping.
During a timeout, Ekblad even saw one of his buddies pictured on the scoreboard dancing. That brought one of many smiles to his face that night.
“That was hilarious. I had a good chuckle sitting there on the bench,” said Ekblad, who will have plenty of time to visit friends next week when the Panthers spend four days in the Motor City.
Thursday: Blue Jackets at Panthers
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.
The series: Columbus leads 13-4-0.
Of note: The Blue Jackets continued their dominance of the Panthers with Monday’s 2-1 win in Columbus, Ohio. The Jackets have now won nine in a row against Florida; the Panthers haven’t won a game in this series since 2007.