With five games remaining, a number of clichés can be applied to the Dallas Stars' push toward the playoffs.
After their latest win, the most accurate has to do with them having the inside track.
They're now hoping to gain some further separation against the listless Panthers on Sunday in South Florida, where Stars backup goaltender Tim Thomas could face the team he was traded from a month ago.
Saturday's 5-2 victory at Tampa Bay pushed Dallas (38-28-11) into eighth in the Western Conference, a point clear of Phoenix with a game in hand. But establishing a three-point lead could be key as the Stars end the season next Sunday in Phoenix.
"We have a lot of games in a few days and we need to get as many points as we can in this stretch," said coach Lindy Ruff, whose team is after its first postseason appearance since 2008. "This was very important."
They treated it that way early by jumping out to 3-0 first-period lead on a pair of goals from Jamie Benn and one from Tyler Seguin.
"The first shift of the game can mean a lot," said Benn, who scored 40 seconds in. "You want to set the tempo right away and we got a quick goal."
Each added a assist, giving Seguin 22 points in his last 15 games with a goal in three straight. He has seven assists in his last seven games against Florida.
Kari Lehtonen made 27 saves to improve to 6-2-0 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in his past eight starts.
He hasn't enjoyed much success versus Florida for quite some time, going 1-4-0 with a 4.34 GAA and .866 save percentage in his past five starts against the Panthers. That includes a 4-2 home loss on Oct. 3 when Lehtonen squared off against Thomas, his now-teammate who was traded from Florida to the Stars at last month's deadline.
Thomas has allowed one goal or none in six of his last eight starts against the Panthers, though he hasn't faced Florida in more than two years.
The Panthers (27-43-8) have dropped five straight while totaling seven goals. Friday's 2-1 home loss to Calgary was their third straight in regulation in their own building.
They last lost four straight home contests in regulation from Feb. 16-March 3, 2011.
"A win would have been nice but I thought the effort was there, the boys played really hard, we carried the play most of the night. You've got to give their goalie credit, he played well and made some big saves," said Roberto Luongo, who returned from a mild concussion to make 15 saves. "We just couldn't get that equalizer."
Luongo has lost his last four starts against Dallas. Though he hasn't been getting much offensive support, the deadline acquisition has been steady in his last three games with a 2.09 GAA.
That lack of offense has been a season-long trend for Florida, which is the only NHL team without a 40-point scorer. Nick Bjugstad, Brian Campbell and Scottie Upshall each have 35 while Brad Boyes has 34. They're in danger of becoming the first team since the 2000-01 Minnesota Wild without anyone registering 40 points in an 82-game season.
Boyes missed the Calgary game with a sore back and is considered day to day.
Stars forward Ray Whitney missed the Tampa Bay game with a lower-body injury and is unlikely to face the Panthers.