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MIAMI — The Carolina Hurricanes officially were eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday. The Florida Panthers are still alive, but they have taken several body blows of late.
On Monday night, the Panthers (39-30-8) will host the Hurricanes (35-33-11) at the BB&T Center. The game means virtually nothing in the standings for Carolina, but it will be crucially important for the Panthers.
This will be the first Panthers home game since returning from a disastrous 1-2-1 road trip in which the last three games ended in defeat, one of them in overtime. A slow start this season — the Panthers ranked 28th in the league in points as of Jan. 30 — has left Florida with little margin for error as it tries to chase down the final wild-card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Florida is seven points behind New Jersey (42-28-9) for the final wild-card spot.
“Two points are what matter the most for us in the race we’re in,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner told the media. “We’ve had too many lapses in our game. Our starts haven’t been good. The No. 1 thing is we have to commit to have more maturity in our game. We have to manage the game better.”
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes are likely just now coming to grips with the fact that they have missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year, the longest such active streak in the NHL.
The Hurricanes entered this season with much hope. Scott Darling was brought in from the Chicago Blackhawks to be their No. 1 goalie, but he has been outplayed by veteran mainstay Cam Ward, who will be a free agent after this season.
Similarly, winger Justin Williams, 36, was brought in from the Washington Capitals, where he had 24 goals last season. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, he has not been a difference-maker, scoring just 15 goals, perhaps showing his age.
As Carolina’s ends the fourth season with general manager Ron Francis and coach Bill Peters in charge, the Hurricanes are left to try to play spoilers while ownership ponders the future direction of their management team.
“It’s been a grind for quite a while here,” Peters told the media following playoff elimination. “We had more expectations — higher and realistic expectations.”
On the other side on Monday night will be the Panthers, who a couple of weeks ago were listed as having a 75-percent playoff probability. Now they are down to just 14 percent per hockeyreference.com.
The Panthers have just five games left, and they pretty much have to win them all. The good news for Florida is that four of them are at home. But the bad news is that three of them are against league heavyweights — the Nashville Predators and home and home against the Boston Bruins.
Florida will rely heavily on its two All-Star centers, Alexsander Barkov, who has 26 goals and leads the team with 75 points; and Vincent Trocheck, who leads the team with 30 goals and has 71 points. Barkov was an All-Star this year. Trocheck made the team last year but is having another great season.
Two other Panthers forwards have impressive scoring totals: Jonathan Huberdeau has 25 goals and 67 points; and Evgenii Dadonov has 26 goals and 60 points.
Florida’s defense contributes mightily to the attack, especially Aaron Ekblad (16 goals, 35 points), Keith Yandle (eight goals, 55 points) and Mike Matheson (10 goals, 26 points).
Carolina is led by Sebastian Aho, who has a team-high 28 goals and 64 points.