SUNRISE, Fla. — Down but not out, the Florida Panthers’ playoff hopes have been upgraded from doubtful to questionable after a hard-fought 3-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night at the BB&T Center.
The Panthers, who had lost each of their last two games by one goal despite a pair of outstanding efforts, finally found the "puck luck" that had been eluding them to best Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek and gain a much-needed two points in the standings.
"I would say we were luckier," said forward Jaromir Jagr, who passed Phil Esposito for fifth on the NHL all-time goals list with his 718th tally. "They hit some posts. Luongo was playing fantastic, but we have to learn to win those games when we have a lead.
"But it was playoff hockey. We know we have to play playoff hockey the last 11 games. It’s the only we can try to make the playoffs."
Left for dead after back-to-back losses against the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, the Panthers playoff prospects have once again found new life as the team’s uphill climb towards the postseason has gone from impossible to simply very difficult.
For even in their most recent defeats, Panthers players have remained upbeat, feeling as though they’ve played well enough to win each night.
"The last seven, eight games, even the games we lost, I felt like we were in the game and we should win those games," said Jagr. "Just play the same way. [Luongo] is going to stop everything, so we’re going to need only one goal."
Luongo, in his first start since sustaining a shoulder injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3, stopped 25 of 26 shots against the Red Wings as a six-game absence left the 35-year-old netminder looking no worse for wear.
"I wasn’t sure what to expect," said Luongo, who is expected to start the majority of Florida’s remaining games. "I only really had one practice. I was really happy with the way I felt. The boys played a big game and got a three-goal lead, so it was nice."
In victory, Florida now sits only five points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Boston lost 6-4 against the Ottawa Senators, who are three points ahead of the Panthers.
The Panthers have 11 games remaining to eclipse Boston, including three head-to-head matchups — the first of which takes place Saturday in Sunrise.
"We don’t want to look at the big picture. We just want to look ahead," said Luongo, whose record improved to 24-16-11 in victory. "We’ll enjoy this one tonight, but we know that our next one, our season is pretty much on the line. We have 48 hours to get ready."
A regulation victory against the Bruins would significantly increase Florida’s playoff chances while a defeat would make things immensely more difficult. Regardless of their remaining schedule, the Panthers view Saturday’s contest as an elimination game.
"It’s a playoff," said Jagr, who has two goals and five assists in nine games with the Panthers. "If we want to make the playoffs we have to beat Boston all three games. It’s a Game 7 for us Saturday night. Everybody has to realize it."
A victory against Detroit was a start, but it’s up to the Panthers to continue building on that foundation. Florida has yet to win more than three consecutive games this season, but will need to find a way to string together multiple victories in order to remain in the hunt.
"This is what you play for," said forward Shawn Thornton, a member of the Bruins from 2007-2014.
"We’ve got to win our games. Nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re going to have to win the games we have to win."
It may only be March in South Florida, but the playoffs have already arrived. The road ahead is daunting, but the plucky Panthers feel they are up to the challenge.
"I think this team really wants it that bad," center Nick Bjugstad said. "I think we could make a push like that. That’s the mentality we gotta have going into these next games."