Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers brace for playoff challengers during big week

Over the course of the next week, the Panthers will play perhaps their toughest stretch of the season as Florida’s next four games are all against teams holding down playoff spots. “We have a long way to go,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
Over the course of the next week, the Panthers will play perhaps their toughest stretch of the season as Florida’s next four games are all against teams holding down playoff spots. “We have a long way to go,” coach Gerard Gallant said. AP

The Panthers took care of things this past week, winning games in Montreal and Toronto that they had no business losing.

Now things get interesting for the Atlantic Division leaders.

Over the course of the next week, the Panthers will play perhaps their toughest stretch of the season as Florida’s next four games are all against teams holding down playoff spots.

“We have a long way to go,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said.

Three of the Panthers’ next four games are against teams trying to chase them down from within the neighborhood.

On Saturday, Detroit — which sits eight points back of the Panthers — comes to BB&T Center as the Red Wings try to hold off Philadelphia and continue their amazing streak of 24 consecutive postseason appearances.

The Panthers will then travel back to New York to face the Rangers, who hold second place in the Metropolitan Division.

On Thursday, the Bruins await.

Florida has lost 19 of the past 23 to the Bruins and haven’t won in the Garden since 2011.

Boston went into Friday — the Bruins visit Anaheim late Friday night — three points back of the Panthers despite winning the first three meetings between the two this season.

Florida wraps up its playoff preview week in Tampa next Saturday as it faces its cross-state rivals for the final time this season.

Well, regular season, that is.

The Panthers and Lightning very well could meet in the postseason for the first time.

“We’ve obviously made big strides this year, but we haven’t reached our summit,’’ goalie Roberto Luongo said. “It’s exciting right now to be a part of this club, the potential that it has. We’re just trying to stay in the moment right now, get ready and accumulate as many points as we can and clinch a playoff spot.’’

Once this week is over, the waters substantially calm for the Panthers. Florida’s final seven games of the regular season all come against teams outside the playoff chase.

The Panthers have two games remaining against both the Maple Leafs and Canadiens as well as New Jersey, Ottawa and Carolina.

After beating the Leafs on Thursday, Florida picked up its 40th win of the season and is three wins away from tying the franchise record for victories in a season.

The Panthers won 43 games in 1999-2000 — only that team didn’t have the benefit of ending ties with a shootout.Florida’s 40 wins are fourth most in franchise history with 11 games remaining.

“We’ve had a good run but obviously there’s a lot of work left to do,’’ Luongo said. “We know we really haven’t accomplished anything yet. It’s nice to be part of a group that’s hungry like that.’’

▪ Jaromir Jagr, 44, scored his 24th goal of the year Thursday when he redirected Brian Campbell’s clearing pass from deep in the Florida zone into an empty net.

The goal was Jagr’s seventh away from Sunrise as he has scored 71 percent of his goals in home games this season.

Jagr’s 24 goals are the most he has scored since he got 24 with the Devils two seasons ago.

Jagr said he’ll be playing in the NHL next season and the Panthers are interested in bringing him back. Jagr said he won’t talk contract until his season is over.

Last year, the Panthers and Jagr came to agreement on a one-year contract the day after their season ended.

“I’m going to play next year, somewhere, because I’ve earned that,” Jagr said, adding that he and the Panthers haven’t talked about a new deal yet.

“I have only one mind to play the best I can play. There’s always some teams that will want me if I play good. I don’t play for a contract. I have to earn it. Let’s finish first. I don’t even think about it.”

▪ With actor Kevin Spacey scheduled to attend Saturday’s game, Luongo said being the recipient of the “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt after a victory is something special.

Jussi Jokinen got the sweatshirt for the second time this week after scoring twice against the Maple Leafs.

“It’s a prized possession in our locker room,’’ said Luongo, who said Usual Suspects is his favorite Spacey film. “The boys are proud to wear it.”

Saturday: Red Wings at Panthers

When, where: 7 p.m., BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM (560), WMEN (640), WNMA (1210).

Series: Detroit leads 17-9-5

Scouting report: The Panthers have won five of eight against the Red Wings under coach — and former Detroit forward Gerard Gallant — over the past two seasons. Florida has won four of its past five; Detroit had lost five of seven before winning in Columbus on Thursday.

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