Florida Panthers

With playoff race tightening, Florida Panthers hope to halt small slump

AP

With seven games left before the weeklong All-Star break, the Panthers vowed to finish strong in those games and roll into the unofficial second half of the season with momentum.

Things started out well enough with Florida winning the first three.

With two games left, the Panthers can still end things on a high note, although the past two games haven’t gone the way they wanted.

Florida has lost its past two games in regulation — the first time it has done that since early November — and has lost ground in the playoff race.

“We need points to stay in this thing, and we’ve put ourselves in good position. We just need to continue that,” Brad Boyes said.

“I thought we had a great chance to win [Thursday] but didn’t. So these next two are huge for us.”

With Edmonton coming to Sunrise on Saturday and Vancouver here Monday, the Panthers are facing familiar foes as Florida beat both teams in its previous road trip.

Neither win came easily, and that will probably be the case the second time around.

“We’re trying to battle away and get as many points as we can,” coach Gerard Gallant said.

Said Boyes: “There isn’t much of a feeling-out process with those two teams. We know what it took to win those games, and they know what we’re all about.’’

As tight as the playoff race is, Florida can’t afford to fall too far behind.

The Panthers are currently battling the Rangers and Bruins for one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference.

With Boston topping the Rangers on Thursday and the Panthers losing to Colorado 4-2, Florida fell five points back of the Bruins and remained three back of New York, which played at Columbus on Friday.

“You look at the standings every night and see the teams winning in front of us,” Gallant said.

“We need to stay in the race, and the guys know these are important games. [Thursday] night is gone; we have to focus on the next one. We lost two in a row, that happens to teams. We just have to keep battling.”

▪ Edmonton is the sixth consecutive opponent from the Western Conference the Panthers have faced.

After Monday’s game against Vancouver, the Panthers won’t face the West again until Nashville comes to Sunrise in February.

▪ Gallant appears to be sticking with his latest lineup despite the losses, keeping Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck on the bench.

“I like both of them,” Gallant said. “As a coach, you like to keep your lineup together, and I don’t like to tinker with too much. I think the team is playing well overall. It’s nothing against those two. When they get in the lineup, I want them to stay there. They are young players with a great future with this organization.”

▪ Shawn Thornton took part in Friday’s practice at BB&T Center and hopes to be back in the lineup after the break.

Thornton has been hampered by a groin injury he says he sustained in the home opener in October although he continued to play through it until coming out last month.

“I’m feeling pretty good, and I think it’s sooner rather than later,” Thornton said. “It’s much better than it felt a few weeks ago. I feel pretty good. It’s been a lot of work off the ice the past few weeks. I think it’s helping out there now.”

Saturday: Oilers at Panthers

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

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.

Series: Edmonton leads 13-9-3.

Noteworthy: The Panthers beat Edmonton for just the second time in 11 tries on Sunday with a 4-2 win at Rexall Place. Jimmy Hayes, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim all scored in the win. The Panthers have lost two in a row since.

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