The Panthers (31-25-6) were buried in the Eastern Conference standings on the morning of Jan. 30. They had lost their starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo, and their backup goalie, James Reimer, to injury.
Harri Sateri, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer with zero NHL wins as of then, saved the season, winning four straight games, and the Panthers have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since.
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On Sunday afternoon, the Panthers, who have won 12 of their past 15 games, play host to the Philadelphia Flyers (34-20-11) at the BB&T Center.
The Flyers are second in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind Washington, but the Panthers have won five straight games, including four victories against teams in current playoff position.
“We knew we had to get on a run like this,” Panthers top-line right winger Nick Bjugstad said. “The way we started the season was not ideal. But anything can happen by the end of the year.
“A spark has been lit, and we are meshing well. There’s no stopping here. We have a lot of games to play, and we can’t rely on other teams to help us out.”
Meanwhile, the Flyers will be playing on short rest, having lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-6 in a shootout Saturday afternoon. Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov had one goal and two assists, but Philadelphia coughed up a 5-3 third-period lead.
Lightning star Steven Stamkos provided two goals and three assists for a career-high five points, terrorizing Flyers goalie Petr Mrazek.
“It was a really hard game for both goalies,” Mrazek told the media. “I wish I could’ve stopped more shots. We scored plenty of goals. I need to do better.”
The Flyers are in a tough spot. Not only are they playing perhaps the hottest team in the NHL on short rest, but they are also without high-scoring right winger Wayne Simmonds (20 goals, 17 assists), who has an upper-body injury. The Flyers hope to get him back in two weeks.
In addition, starting goalie Brian Elliott and backup Michal Neuvirth are both out at least one month with injuries, leading the heavy-lifting to Mrazek, a 26-year-old from the Czech Republic who has played all five games since Philadelphia acquired him from Detroit.
The Panthers are one point out of playoff position and have three games in hand on the two teams they are chasing, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We need contributions from everyone,” Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said when asked about a playoff push, beginning against the Flyers. “We can’t rely on the same two or three players or the same two lines every night.”
Panthers coach Bob Boughner said he has enjoyed the past month-plus with his team playing at an elite level for an extended period of time.
“It’s nice for a coach when the team gets on a roll — it’s an easy buy-in,” Boughner said. “They expect to win. They understand how we need to play to be successful. Now they are reaping the rewards.”