Southeast lead is Panthers’ spot to lose

The Florida Panthers are starting to feel the excitement of the playoffs. They continue to hold first place in the Southeast Division, which puts them at third in the East and within reach of their first playoff berth since 2000.

"I look at it as an exciting time of the year," coach Kevin Dineen told "We’ve had our opportunity to separate ourselves from the muck and now we’re right in the thick of it."

The Panthers have held the division lead (non-consecutively) for most of the season, but the current Eastern Conference playoff picture complicates things for the entire division.

Since the Southeast has the least points the Panthers are in third place behind the Atlantic-leading New York Rangers and the Northeast-leading Boston Bruins. The Rangers, at first in the East, have a whopping 16-point lead over the Panthers.

The Southeast’s points predicament also means that the second place Southeast team (currently the Washington Capitals) will be on the playoff bubble – because the conference’s seventh-place team (the Ottawa Senators) has a three-point advantage on the Panthers.

A more concerning statistic though, is that the Panthers have scored the least goals for (171) among not only the current Eastern conference playoff-bound teams, but also the entire Southeast Division.

The Panthers are saved by the current format that has division leaders in the top three places in the conference. But if Florida drops out of first place in the Southeast, its postseason could be in trouble. With Washington, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay nipping at their heels, the Southeast division is the Panthers’ to lose.

"Every game is the biggest game of the season,” goaltender Jose Theodore told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Saturday. "There’s no secret. You look at the standings, we’re right there with Washington, Winnipeg, Tampa, Buffalo."

Theodore himself is a big part of the Panthers’ playoff hopes. Theodore has allowed two goals or less in 10 of his last 13 games.

"He’s a difference maker right now," Dineen told the Panthers website.

With Theodore behind them, the Panthers have won two games in a row, but the Capitals are just one point behind and riding a four-game win streak. In such a close race, it’s the Panthers’ responsibility to keep their own momentum going.

In their final eight games, they face playoff-bound Boston and Philadelphia, as well as the Buffalo Sabres, who are on the bubble. Those are key match-ups that Dineen and his players should have circled on their calendars.

"It’s a good test for us, and those are the teams we have to beat to be Stanley Cup champions," winger Sean Bergenheim said to media members. "I always think you have to focus on your own team and what you have to do to play better. We have to play better in front of our own net; in our defensive zone we can be better. Also, in front of their net we can do a better job scoring."

Bergenheim is right:. The Panthers need scoring in order to keep their first place position in the Southeast and help could be on the way this week as Kris Versteeg is slated to return from a hip injury that has sidelined him since Feb. 26.

Besides Versteeg, Scottie Upshall (sports hernia) and Dmitry Kulikov (knee) can help Florida with its playoff push.

The Panthers need to increase their low scoring in order to secure a spot in the postseason, and Versteeg is guaranteed to help in that respect. Winger Tomas Fleischmann is banking on that.

"When (Versteeg) comes back he’s going to run away again, that’s what I’m looking for," Fleischmann told the Sun-Sentinel.

"One-hundred percent, I’m playing down the stretch this season,” Versteeg told reporters last week. "It’s just a matter of it feeling better and being cleared to go. But I’m coming back. That’s for sure."

General manager Dale Tallon acknowledged that the odds to win the Southeast may not be in the Panthers’ favor, but once the team gets Versteeg, Upshall, and Kulikov back on the ice, the Panthers will be even more committed to a long postseason run.

"(The Capitals are) the favorite (to win the division)," Tallon told reporters Wednesday during the GM annual meeting. "We just need to get healthy and continue to compete."