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ST. PAUL, Minn. – Panthers coach Kevin Dineen admits math wasn't his favorite subject in school as he says philosophy and history were his strong suits.
So when talk comes up regarding what the Panthers have to do to clinch the Southeast Division championship, Dineen backs away. Only this math is pretty simple. And with six games left, the Panthers should be done looking behind them as they aim for the first divisional title in franchise history.
“You can play with numbers so many different ways,'' Dineen said, obviously uncomfortable looking too far into the future. “The only thing we can control is our effort. If we play solid hockey the next two nights, we'll put ourselves in a good position. It will become much clearer.''
Simply put, for the Panthers to end Washington's four-year run atop the division, all Florida has to do is win a few games. Although that sounds easy enough, even the most casual observers know few things ever come easy to the Panthers. This, however, should be one of them.
Washington comes into Thursday trailing the Panthers by five points and only has five games left. The Capitals can only get 94 points; at worst, all the Panthers need to do to get 95 and clinch the division is pick up six points in six games.
And if the Capitals lose in regulation Thursday in Boston and the Panthers win here on Thursday against the slumping Wild, well, the Panthers could leave Columbus on Friday night with the division in hand.
Florida would become the first team to win the division aside from Washington since Atlanta won it in 2007. The Capitals' run of divisional titles started in 2008 after the Panthers beat Carolina on April 4 to help Washington leap the Hurricanes on the final day of the season as it beat the Panthers 3-1. Florida is the only franchise in the division to have never won the division championship.
“Sometimes you look at the big picture and it's right in front of you,'' winger Kris Versteeg said after a light workout on Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center. “It's ours to lose right now. We have to handle our business the next three games here on the road. We need to get the job done.''
Washington hoped the Canadiens would finish the Panthers on Tuesday night after the Capitals lost 5-1 to the visiting Sabres. But the Panthers rallied from a 2-1 deficit as Mikael Samuelsson sent a shot from inside the blue line – 65 feet away – over Carey Price's shoulder to tie it. Florida then won a rare shootout to get two points in the standings after almost getting none.
The Montreal win helped put the Panthers directly behind the wheel of their own fate. It's very possible when Florida travels to Washington next week the game won't mean much at all to the Panthers. With the division, Florida will be the second or third seed in the east when the playoffs start next month.
Washington, meanwhile, is still very much alive in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot so the Panthers aren't expecting any letdown from the Capitals. For now, though, the Panthers honestly don't need to worry about Washington. If they win, they are in and the NHL record for most years between postseason appearances is done.
“The focus has to be for us to take care of our business although we're still paying attention,'' goalie Jose Theodore said. “We win our games and we're fine. We want to get that 'X' next to our name in the standings as quick as we can.''
Photo Courtesy of Andy Slater/640 Sports