Panthers clinch home-ice advantage in first round of playoffs with victory against Sabres

After they went from No. 8 seed to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final last year, the Florida Panthers know home-ice advantage and a high seed only mean so much in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they’re still happy to have the former locked up – and they’re embracing the chance to keep playing for the latter in the final week of the regular season.

The Panthers clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs Saturday with a 3-2, overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres, and now the top spot in the Atlantic Division will remain up for grabs into the final days of the regular season.

“If we get a chance to compete for something,” coach Paul Maurice said, “we’re going to compete for it.”

Florida (51-24-6) temporarily moved into first place in the Atlantic with its win, vaulting a point ahead of the Bruins before Boston played later Saturday. No matter what happened in the Bruins’ game Saturday, the Panthers were set to go into the last week of the regular season with a chance to steal the division title from Boston.

After Saturday, the Bruins will have still played one fewer game than Florida, but the Panthers hold the tiebreaker with more regulation wins, meaning they can still potentially get the top seed in the division — and, with it, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference — by winning their regular-season finale Tuesday.

Either way, Florida feels like it’s in a good spot for the looming Stanley Cup playoffs, even if the path to it, and through it, will be drastically different than a year ago.

At this time last year, the Panthers went into the final week of the regular season fighting for their postseason lives, needing to win just to get into the Cup playoffs. Now, they’ve been able to spend most of the last few weeks ensuring they’ll be as ready as possible once the playoffs begin.

Winger Carter Verhaeghe and defenseman Aaron Ekblad have both missed almost all of April, and Florida isn’t rushing them back, instead waiting for Game 1 of the playoffs to bring them back. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson went out with a minor injury during the game Saturday and Florida didn’t push at all to bring him back. Health and form, and the balancing act between the two, are the two priorities, even above the chance to win a division title.

Even though they needed overtime to beat the Sabres (38-37-6) on Saturday, the Panthers still did enough to feel good about they’re playing with the playoffs just a week away.

Florida outshot Buffalo, 42-39, and held the Sabres to just six shots in the third period, aided by a five-minute power play. Even though they just barely eked out the win by scoring with 1:02 left in overtime, the Panthers won on a gorgeous goal by two of their stars, with center Aleksander Barkov winning a battle for a loose puck in the offensive zone while his teammates made a line change, then set up Sam Reinhart for his 55th goal of the season with a precision pass through a pair of defenders.

“We’re just trying to start the playoff mind-set early,” center Anton Lundell said.

The attitude was evident throughout, and has been for much of the final month of the regular season. Florida has given up just four goals in the last five games and All-Star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s goals against average is down to 2.38 — second best in the NHL among goalies to play at least 50 games.

After the Panthers gave up two goals in the first 9:48, Bobrovsky stopped the final 25 shots he faced and got an assist from Sam Bennett late in the second period when the center dove across the goal mouth to sweep a puck off the line after Bobrovsky almost scored on himself.

“That was the key moment,” Bobrovsky said with a smile. “It’s the goalie’s happiest moment when you see that it’s out of the net.”

Unlike last year, Florida does not need to be perfect right now. Still, the Panthers will once they get started in the playoffs next week and days like Saturday are just part of the bigger puzzle.

The win was nice because it still meant something for Florida as it tries to sort out its postseason positioning, but the way the Panthers are playing — and the ways they can still try to get better in the next week — are what’s most important.

“The difference between this group and last year’s is these guys are a little bit more serious, a little more focused,” Maurice said. “They know what they’ve been through, they know what’s coming, they know how hard it’s going to be and the bench is a little quieter, just waiting for it to come.”