Panthers keep bigger picture in view ahead of clash vs. Canadiens

A superb first half of the season has given the Florida Panthers some much-needed wiggle room as they barrel down the stretch.

The Panthers will continue their four-game trip with a matchup against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, five days after clinching a berth in the playoffs.

Florida (47-23-5, 99 points) is two points back of the Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division with seven games left for each team, including a matchup in Boston on Saturday.

The Panthers didn’t clinch a playoff berth last season until one game remained and then zoomed to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

“You can feel their experience last year in the playoffs,” said Florida forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who came to the Panthers from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline this season.

“It means a lot to have a lot of guys who’ve gone deep in the playoffs and know how to come back in a game, like never give up. Things happen in the playoffs, which are not always comfortable, and I feel like this team has very good character and a close group of guys.”

Florida’s second-leading goal scorer, Carter Verhaeghe, is day-to-day because of an undisclosed injury sustained during a 6-4 loss at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night.

Florida coach Paul Maurice said having a playoff spot locked up will give him some leeway on when Verhaeghe can return.

“You can take a day-to-day injury and sit it out,” Maurice said. “We’ve had a bunch of guys get sick that didn’t play, so you can take care of people’s health better.”

The Canadiens (28-33-12, 68 points) had their first three-game winning streak of the season snapped on Saturday in a 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Montreal, which entered the week in last place in the Atlantic Division, hopes to use its final nine games to build momentum going into the offseason.

“We’re not going to be in the playoffs here, but these games matter,” Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. “They’re important for us to continue to work on that (identity) and hit the ground running next year.”

The rest of the week won’t get any easier for the Canadiens, who are scheduled to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and the Maple Leafs on Saturday before playing at the New York Rangers on Sunday.

The Rangers already have clinched a playoff spot, and the Lightning and Maple Leafs should clinch in the coming days as well.

“These games matter, and I think we’re trying to be good pros, come to the rink every day and dial in our structure and our systems, and that’s the goal,” Gallagher said. “You want to get to that level where the other teams have to talk about you.”

Carolina is one team the Canadiens hope to emulate. The Hurricanes qualified for the playoffs for the sixth straight season in 2023-24 after missing out for nine straight years.

Montreal will miss the postseason for the third straight season in 2023-24 following its improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021.

“I feel like (the Hurricanes) have also built up their game through the years, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Montreal rookie forward Juraj Slafkovsky said. “I feel like we’re going in the right direction.”

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