SUNRISE (CBSMiami/AP) – The Florida Panthers may have been eliminated from playoff contention, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play spoilers to one of their division rivals.
The race for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot has come down to the final two games, and the Boston Bruins still maintain control despite whiffing on an opportunity to improve their situation.
A victory Thursday night could give the Bruins some room for error heading into the season’s last day as they look to deal host Florida a third straight defeat.
Boston (41-26-13) and Ottawa have the same number of points as the clubs battle for the last wild-card spot. However, the Bruins hold the first two tiebreakers, leading 37-35 in regulation and overtime wins and 6-4 in points earned over five head-to-head meetings.
They had a chance to boost their advantage with the Senators idle Wednesday, but had a five-game winning streak snapped with a 3-0 loss to Washington in the first of a three-game trip that concludes the regular season.
Boston faces Tampa Bay in its finale Saturday, while Ottawa visits the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers on Thursday and Philadelphia on Saturday.
“Right now, we have less than 24 hours to get ready for the next one. The biggest game of the season,” forward David Krejci said. “Just forget about this one and move on.”
The Bruins are 2-0-1 this season against Florida (36-29-15), which fell out of postseason contention largely due to a 5-6-1 stretch since March 15.
Milan Lucic scored with 1:09 remaining to give the Bruins a 3-2 win March 31 in the most recent meeting. He and Ryan Spooner, who tied the game earlier in the third, also added an assist.
The Panthers were bounced from the race with Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the Lightning, and they put forward a lackluster effort in a 4-1 loss to Montreal the following night.
“We checked out. I wasn’t happy with the performance,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “Montreal got an early lead and (seven) power plays. When we’re taking that many penalties, we’re not going to beat anybody.”
Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick who is second among rookie defensemen with 37 points, scored his 12th goal.
The Panthers are hoping young players like Ekblad, former Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau (team-high 52 points), Nick Bjugstad (team-best 24 goals) and Brandon Pirri (22 goals in 47 games) can guide Florida to the playoffs next year.
As for the final two games, captain Willie Mitchell hopes to see more focus than Sunday.
“I think everyone saw it wasn’t a good enough effort from us, first of all me,” Mitchell said. “Our goal was to make the playoffs, and after last game when we officially got eliminated, your mind is in a different place.”
Florida ended a three-game home losing streak to Boston when Pirri scored the shootout winner in a 2-1 victory March 21. Roberto Luongo has been in net for all three matchups this season, posting a 1.92 goals-against average.
It’s unclear if he’ll oppose Niklas Svedberg or Tuukka Rask, who started each contest during Boston’s winning streak and stopped 30 shots Wednesday.
The Bruins are still without defensemen Dougie Hamilton, who has missed the last 11 with an undisclosed injury.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 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.)