The Florida Panthers are one win away from making history, but still have work to do to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The surging Panthers look to set a franchise record with their eighth consecutive victory when they host the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night.
Florida (35-31-8) defeated Atlanta 3-1 on Sunday to tie the club record with its seventh straight win. The Panthers also won seven in a row in the 1995-96 and 2005-06 seasons.
Although Florida is third in the Southeast and only seven points back of Carolina (40-30-5), the Panthers’ recent run has them four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with eight games remaining. Florida hasn’t reached the playoffs since 1999-2000.
“We’re still not there,” said Florida coach Jacques Martin, whose team has outscored opponents 20-9 during the winning streak. “We still have some catching up to do. That’s why we can’t afford to lose.”
Trying to avoid their first defeat since losing 3-2 against Minnesota on Feb. 29, the Panthers will try to improve to 3-1-0 against the Hurricanes at home in 2007-08. Florida has scored 12 goals in its three contests versus the Hurricanes at the BankAtlantic Center, where it will play its sixth game of a season-long seven-game homestand Thursday.
On Sunday, Olli Jokinen, Radek Dvorak and Rostislav Olesz each had goals, while Brett McLean added two assists for the Panthers, who scored two power-play goals to give them six in their last 15 tries with the man advantage.
“This is the time of year when you want to play this type of hockey and you want to be finding ways to win, and that’s what we’re doing,” said McLean, who has four goals and six assists in his last five games.
Jokinen scored for the second straight game, while Tomas Vokoun made 29 saves for his fourth straight win.
“At this time of year you need that,” Martin said. “You need to have your best players be your best players. That helps you win hockey games.”
Jokinen has 32 goals on the season overall, and two goals with seven assists versus Carolina. Vokoun, meanwhile, has posted a 3.52 goals-against average in starting all six games against the Hurricanes. He allowed three goals in the third period of the Panthers’ 5-4 loss at Carolina on Feb. 16 - the teams’ most recent meeting.
Eric Staal had a goal and an assist in that contest for the Hurricanes, and added his 35th of the season in Carolina’s 5-3 win at Atlanta on Wednesday night.
Staal has 16 points in his last seven contests for Carolina, which has won 10 of its last 12 and appears headed back to playoffs after missing the 2007 postseason.
Despite Wednesday’s outcome, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette expects more from his team, which allowed Atlanta back in the game after jumping out to a 3-0 first-period lead.
“We were on the short end of a few things - work ethic, determination, grit,” Laviolette said. “As a whole, we need to be better than we were tonight.”
Cam Ward, who made 31 saves for his 34th victory, is 4-1-0 with a 3.04 goals-against average in his career against the Panthers.