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Excuses Or Not, The Time Has Come For The Panthers To Make A Playoff Push

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SUNRISE (CBSMiami/AP) — Coming off of the best regular season in franchise history, expectations around the Florida Panthers were high heading into this season.

And rightly so.

But now we sit in February and the team has struggled mightily this season, though with some very good reasons.

Major injuries to key players and an in-season coaching change, for starters.

Excuses or not, for the Panthers, there’s no more waiting for the postseason push.

The time for urgency has arrived for the reigning Atlantic Division champions, who have put themselves in a fairly precarious position when it comes to just getting back into the playoffs.

And Panthers coach Tom Rowe is not shy about discussing the stakes.

“Every day, we just say every single point is life or death,” Rowe said.

That might sound somewhat overstated, especially since Florida — which has picked up five points in its last three games, matching the team’s best stretch of 2016-17 — entered Wednesday only two points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. But in a season where injuries and slumps have been far more prevalent than wins, the Panthers know it’s time to make a move.

“The amount of games that we have left and the position that we’re in, we don’t have very much room for many more losses,” defenseman Mike Matheson said.

There are some good signs.

Florida’s 6-5 win over Ottawa on Tuesday night — one where the Panthers trailed 4-2 in the second period — was the team’s second straight victory, and established a season-high for goals scored.

Jonathan Huberdeau, who hasn’t played yet this season because of an Achilles injury, is skating again and should return to games in the next couple of weeks. Aleksander Barkov, another key forward who hasn’t played in more than a month because of a back injury, is also practicing again and may be on the cusp of returning to the lineup.

Huberdeau, Barkov and Jaromir Jagr were supposed to be Florida’s top line this season. They haven’t logged one second of ice time together, obviously, but their looming returns are part of the reason why Rowe said he has high hope of a postseason shot.

“Psychologically, it’s enormous. It really is,” Rowe said. “Two big bodies that can play a physical game and can make plays. They’re NHL players. That’s been a big, big lift.”

And Florida has needed one.

Huberdeau getting hurt late in the preseason was a blow, the early season firing of coach Gerard Gallant was a surprise to many and very little has gone along according to Florida’s plan so far this season.

Matheson said players are aware of the standings situation, but are keeping their approach simple.

“It’s kind of like a guy that’s struggling to score,” Matheson said. “You don’t want to be looking at how many points you have or how many games it’s been since you haven’t had a point. Same kind of situation — we don’t want to look at the standings every single day … it gets into your head. Every game we’re just focused on ‘win this game.'”

The Panthers play host to Anaheim on Friday, then get six days before next playing against Los Angeles on Feb. 9. That stretch could be critical in terms of getting some players back and others getting a bit of rest for what Rowe hopes is a season-ending surge.

“We can’t afford not to be in every game,” Rowe said. “That’s what we talk about. We’re not going to hide from it. That’s the way the league is now. Everybody’s fighting and it feels like the season’s almost over, given the situation. Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure, but it’s good to see who can perform under the pressure.”

(TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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