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The Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov has been a major factor in the team’s second-half surge.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Look out for the Florida Panthers.

After struggling throughout the first half of the season and appearing to play themselves well out of a playoff appearance, the Panthers have been on fire since their last game in January, and they are bearing down on the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Panthers dropped a 4-2 decision at home to the Washington Capitals January 25, and their record was 19-22-6 at that point. They won seven of their next eight games for an immediate turnaround, and they have gone 15-4-1 to pull within four points of the Blue Jackets and three points of the Devils as the season has reached the final month of the season.

The Panthers have been getting consistent offense from a trio of star players. Aleksander Barkov leads the team in scoring with 25 goals and 44 assists, Vincent Trocheck has 26 goals and 38 assists, while Jonathan Huberdeau has 23 goals and 40 assists. 

Additionally, goalie Roberto Luongo is 7-1-1 in his last nine starts, and he has been coming up with the big save at key moments.

While the Panthers were too far behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs to make a run at one of the top three spots in the Atlantic Division, they have been on a relentless march toward postseason eligibility.

Every day we’ve got to play like it’s our last game,” forward Nick Bjugstad said, per Alain Poupart of NHL.com. “Guys understand that and you can see the urgency in our game.”

Taylor Hall has been carrying the New Jersey offense.

Taylor Hall has been carrying the New Jersey offense.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Neither the Devils nor Blue Jackets are playing at the same level as the Panthers, who surprisingly dropped a 5-3 decision at home to the Ottawa Senators Monday night. The Blue Jackets have won seven of their last nine games, but that run of solid play comes after Columbus lost nine of the previous 12 games.

New Jersey has been getting a lift from high-scoring winger Taylor Hall, who has scored 30 goals and 44 assists, but the Devils have lost six of their last 10 games. They are also in the early stages of a six-game road trip, and it will be difficult for the Devils to maintain their playoff position as a result.

Here’s a look at the full NHL standings.

While the likelihood is that those three teams are battling for two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference is a bit more complicated.

The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are fairly secure with the top two positions in the Central Division, while the Minnesota Wild is in a decent position in third place.

The Vegas Golden Knights remain in first place in the Pacific Division, with the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings in second and third place, respectively

The Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche are in the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference, but they are in a dogfight with the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames for those playoff spots.

The Ducks and Flames have a chance to catch the Sharks and Kings in the Pacific Division, but Anaheim and Calgary are going to have to pick up their level of play to do that.

The Kings are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, while the Flames are 4-5-1 in that span. The big issue for Calgary is the team’s poor play at home. They are just 14-16-4 at the Saddledome, and that counteracts their 20-10-6 road record.

    

Predictions

Despite their loss Monday night, we don’t see the Panthers slowing down in the Eastern Conference, and they should be able to earn one of the two wild-card spots along with the Blue Jackets. The struggling Devils have played well for much of the season, but they just don’t have enough depth and talent to make it through the stretch run to stay ahead of either Florida or Columbus.

Look for the Flames to finally figure out how to play at home, and they will overtake the Kings and take the third spot in the Pacific Division.

Dallas and Los Angeles should end up with the two wild-card spots, and that means the Avalanche, Blues and Ducks will find themselves on the outside looking in and they will miss the playoffs.



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