TORONTO – The Florida Panthers are perfectly content to be the best of a bad bunch.
With their 8-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, the Panthers clawed to within one point of the Southeast Division lead. And while they currently sit tied for 10th overall in the Eastern Conference with 55 points – four behind eighth-place Boston – winning the division would immediately vault the Panthers to the cushy No. 3 seed in the East thanks to the NHL’s playoff system which rewards division winners.
Panthers centre Brett McLean, who had a career-high five points (1-4) against Toronto, knows his team is benefiting from mediocre divisional competition.
“We’re .500 right now (25-25-5) and to win the division is entirely in our own hands and we’re very lucky to have that and we really want to take advantage of that,” said McLean, whose team is tied with the Washington Capitals.
Both clubs sit one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes in the tight Southeast standings.
Florida has won three in a row, and has points in five of its last six games. The Panthers have made several second-half playoff pushes in past seasons, but haven’t qualified for post-season play since 1999-2000.
Panthers coach Jacques Martin said his team always had its sights on capturing the division.
“We’re aiming to finish first in our division, that was our goal at the beginning of the season,” said Martin, whose team heads to Ottawa for a tilt with the Senators on Thursday. “I think it’s within our grasp now, so we just got to keep going.”
First-year Florida blue-liner Cory Murphy said the team must stay focused on each game, or its run at a playoff spot may fall short.
“We’re happy with the last two games on the road (both wins), but tomorrow is a new day and Ottawa is a new game and we need two points there, so this doesn’t really help us in Ottawa,” he said.