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It took a seven-game winning streak to get the Florida Panthers back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With seven games left, they may need to repeat that feat to actually make the postseason.
The Panthers try to continue their late-season charge toward their first playoff berth in eight years by taking advantage of a home-and-home set with the conference's worst team, starting Saturday when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Florida (35-31-9) seemed all but eliminated from the East's playoff picture at the end of February when it was 28-31-8 and had won just twice in its previous 10 games.
But the Panthers began March with seven straight victories to put themselves in position to get to the postseason for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. They had a chance to establish a franchise record on Thursday by winning their eighth in a row, but lost 2-1 in a shootout to Carolina.
"There were a lot of positives to take from that game," said left wing David Booth. "We've been playing well. You take the positives from this game, we got a point, but we've just got to put this one behind us and prepare for (Tampa Bay)."
That point put the Panthers within three of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East following Thursday's action, though they are in 11th place. They are 13 points better than Tampa Bay, where these teams will also meet on Tuesday.
Goaltending has been the key to Florida's turnaround. Backup Craig Anderson won the first three games of the streak, posting two shutouts. All-Star goaltender Tomas Vokoun started the team's last five games, going 4-0-1 with a 1.55 goals-against average.
The Panthers haven't allowed more than two goals in a game in March.
Olli Jokinen leads Florida with 32 goals and 69 points, but the team's hottest player of late has been center Brett McLean. He has four goals and six assists in his last six games.
Against the Lightning, however, Jokinen has been tough to stop. He has four goals and five assists in six games between the teams, and 46 points in his last 31 games against them.
Tampa Bay (29-37-8) won't be going to the playoffs, and that's due in large part to its dreadful 11-20-6 road record, tied for worst in the league. The Lightning are 1-6-2 in their last nine away from home, including a 4-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Vincent Lecavalier scored his 40th goal - and his eighth in six games - in that defeat. His 89 points rank third in the NHL behind Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, but Lecavalier is more concerned with his team's mounting losses than the points race.
"When you don't make the playoffs, (the scoring race) is not as gratifying," said Lecavalier, who has just one goal in his last 12 games against Florida.
The central issue for Tampa Bay during the month of March has been its inconsistent goaltending. Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas in a deal for star center Brad Richards at the trade deadline, has either been great or struggled mightily. He's allowed at least four goals in three starts this month, but has allowed one goal or fewer in three others.
Florida and Tampa Bay have split six meetings this season, but the Lightning are just 2-7-2 in their last 11 trips to south Florida.