TAMPA BAY (CBSMiami/AP) – With less than three weeks remaining in the NHL’s regular season, there are only a few teams left that have a chance to sneak into a playoff spot.READ MORE: Martin's 26 Points Lead Heat To 104-92 Victory Over Blazers
The Florida Panthers certainly aren’t giving up their playoff dream without a fight, but they’ll be tested on a five-game trip that begins with an in-state date against the league’s best home team.
Coming off a big win over one of the teams directly ahead of them, the Panthers look to keep closing the gap in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night when they face the surging Tampa Bay Lightning.
Florida (33-25-14) seemed to be on its way toward missing the postseason for the 15th time in 17 seasons after consecutive losses left it seven points back of the second wild-card spot last Tuesday.
The Panthers have responded with back-to-back victories, including Saturday’s 2-1 shootout win over visiting Boston that inched them closer to the Bruins and Ottawa in the race for that final playoff position. The red-hot Senators jumped one point ahead of Boston and five in front of Florida with Monday’s 5-2 win over San Jose.
“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity. You could feel it,” goalie Roberto Luongo said. “We’re happy we got the win. You’d have liked to have gotten it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”
Florida should have plenty to say about which club comes away with the postseason berth. The Panthers, 7-3-1 since Jaromir Jagr came on board in late February, will face the Bruins twice and the Senators once over the last 10 games.
However, they’ll also play Atlantic Division-leading Montreal and second-place Tampa Bay (45-21-7) two times apiece.READ MORE: Florida Abortion Bill Passes First Hurdle
The Lightning, two points behind three teams for the league’s top record, are gearing up for the playoffs with a 7-1-1 record in their past nine games. They’re also an NHL-best 29-7-1 at home with 11 straight wins there versus divisional foes.
Following a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg in the opener, they’ve won three in a row on this six-game stay at Amalie Arena after Sunday’s 5-3 victory over Boston. Ondrej Palat scored one goal and set up another for his eighth assist over his past six games.
“We feel like we can win every game,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We may not win every game, but we feel like we can.”
The Lightning, who average a league-high 3.23 goals, have totaled 12 scores during this winning streak. They’ll try to continue that production against a Florida team that has allowed just nine goals over its last six contests.
Luongo has stopped 52 of 54 shots in two wins for the Panthers since returning from a six-game absence due to a shoulder injury. The veteran, though, is 0-3-1 with a 3.28 goals-against average in his last four starts at Tampa Bay.
Ben Bishop had been undefeated in five matchups with Florida before a 4-3 road defeat March 1. He’s now one win away from tying the franchise single-season record (37) for victories, which he set in 2013-14.
Jagr keyed the Panthers’ win earlier this month with a goal and an assist, while Brad Boyes scored his 11th in his last 20 games against the Lightning. Jonathan Huberdeau added three assists, and scored in a 3-2 overtime road loss Oct. 9.
Defenseman Victor Hedman provided the winner in that contest and has seven assists over a seven-game point streak at home versus Florida. Steven Stamkos – second in the NHL with 40 goals – has scored 21 in his last 25 games in the series.MORE NEWS: Federal Government Sets Aside $1.1 Billion To Restore Ailing Florida Everglades
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