As Florida Panthers enter All-Star Break, a look at where they stand in playoff race

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) and defenseman Radko Gudas (7) congratulate each other after the Panthers beat the Boston Bruins 4-3 in an overtime period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The Florida Panthers know where they stand. They know the task ahead of them. They know it won’t be easy.

But they also know, however faint, that they have a chance.

Following a thrilling, 4-3, come-from-behind overtime victory against the Boston Bruins on Saturday — a win in which Aleksander Barkov tied the game with less than three seconds left in regulation and Sam Reinhart scored the game-winner 17 seconds into overtime — Florida enters the All-Star Break with a 24-22-6 record.

The Panthers remain on the periphery of a wild card berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They’re not far enough behind the competition to be ruled out yet with two-and-a-half months left in the regular season.

They’re also far enough behind that they essentially need a perfect run over this final 30-game sprint to sneak into the postseason.

“Why else would you be in hockey?” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “What else is there? The games don’t necessarily mean anything for the top three or four teams or the bottom three or four, but the rest of us get to live every day like it’s your last. That’s a good way to go.”

What the playoff field looks like

And unlike last season, when the Eastern Conference’s playoff field was essentially decided by the end of January, there is still a pretty open race this season.

The top three teams from each conference are more or less decided. The Bruins (38-6-5, 81 points), Toronto Maple Leafs (30-12-8, 68 points) and Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-1, 65 points) all have a massive lead on the rest of the Atlantic Division. Same with the Carolina Hurricanes (31-9-8, 70 points), New Jersey Devils (32-13-4, 68 points) and New York Rangers (27-14-8, 62 points) in the Metropolitan Division.

But there is theoretically a six-team race for the two wild card spots.

Entering Sunday, the Washington Capitals (26-19-6, 58 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (24-16-9, 57 points) have the top two spots. Buffalo (26-19-3, 55 points) is close behind followed by the Panthers (54 points), New York Islanders (24-22-5, 53 points) and Detroit Red Wings (21-19-8, 50 points).

While Florida is only three points out by pure numbers, it’s worth noting Florida has played more games than every one of those teams they are competing with for playoff positioning, meaning they have less points available for them to gain. The Panthers’ .519 points percentage, in fact, is sixth among the six teams.

But with all those teams relatively close together, there will be a fight to the finish just to get into the playoffs.

“The teams that make it will be legitimate teams,” Maurice said. “They will have played and learned to handle adversity and be hard enough that they have a legitimate chance to win.”

How the Panthers got to this point

Maurice, of course, hopes his Panthers are one of those eight teams that makes it from the Eastern Conference.

And, to his point, his team has been battle-tested and gone through its lumps over the first 52 games of their season.

Mainstays have been in and out of the lineup all season.

Top defenseman Aaron Ekblad missed 11 games early with a groin injury. Star center and team captain Aleksander Barkov missed 10 games in a 19-game stretch — the first seven due to illness the final three with a lower-body injury. Defenseman Radko Gudas missed 10 games with a concussion. Center-turned-wing Anton Lundell missed nine games with an illness and lower-body injury. And top goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have both missed extended time, including both being unavailable for all of Florida’s past five games.

They just finished a grueling January schedule — 15 games with three sets of back-to-backs, nine total on the road and no more than two games at a time on home ice — with an 8-5-2 record, earning 60 percent of the points available to them to help keep their head above water in the playoff race.

“They played their asses off this month,” Maurice said, “And we can build off that.”

The final stretch

The Panthers’ final 30 games, on paper, work out in their advantage. They play 18 of those games on home ice. This includes a stretch from Feb. 20-March 18 in which they play nine of 10 games at FLA Live Arena, with the one road game in that stretch being at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Florida is 13-7-3 at home this season.

The team also should be close to full strength to start the back stretch. Maurice said Saturday he is hopeful both Bobrovsky and Knight will be back in game shape when they return from the All-Star Break. Winger Anthony Duclair, who hasn’t played yet this season while recovering from offseason Achilles surgery, is also trending toward a return at some point after the break.

“Regardless of who’s in and who’s out, the most important thing isn’t actually the individual personnel; it’s the group hardness,” Maurice said. “It’s something learned. To be a strong team, you’ve got to be hard. You’ve got to suffer what we suffered and be resilient.”