SPORTS

Panthers chasing down Bruins for final playoff spot in Eastern Conference

02/18/2015 01:35 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Shawn Thornton still has friends on the Boston Bruins, but he wishes his former teammates ill will as his Florida Panthers chase them down for a playoff spot.

"I'm hoping they fall off," Thornton said. "I want to play in the playoffs. It's been a while since I haven't. It's not acceptable. I'm hoping that we can close that gap soon."

The gap is between the Bruins and Panthers for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference is just two points going into Boston's game Wednesday night at the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

The playoff race is very real for Florida, which has gotten superb goaltending from Roberto Luongo and contributions from budding young stars like Aaron Ekblad and Nick Bjugstad.

"We're still in the hunt," coach Gerard Gallant said. "We've been consistent all year long. We play hard and we work hard. ... If we show up and play hard, we can beat anybody on any given night."

After beating the Maple Leafs, the Panthers continue their Canadian swing Thursday at the Montreal Canadiens before visiting the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. They've played well enough lately and capitalized on the Bruins' stretch of five losses in six games to cut the deficit down from eight points earlier this month.

Thornton, who has been on eight playoff teams and won the Stanley Cup twice between the Anaheim Ducks and Bruins, knows it's not easy to make up points this late in a season. He referenced the commonly held theory that teams out of a spot by U.S. Thanksgiving are extreme long shots to make it.

Still, every game has a playoff feel now for the Panthers.

"It has to be for us," Thornton said. "We're in ninth, we're not in seventh or eighth. We're trying to climb back in and we're chasing some good teams."

Boston is really the only team the Panthers or Philadelphia Flyers (six points back with an extra game played) can catch. But just being in the race is beneficial for this young team that has taken major strides since last year.

"That's the big difference from last year: Everyone's a lot more excited to come to the rink," Bjugstad said. "We're just having fun and this playoff push is a big-time challenge for us."

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