Despite being atop the Southeast Division, the Panthers' first trip to the playoffs in 12 years is anything but a lock.
Florida looks to extend its slim lead atop the standings this afternoon as it battles a Detroit Red Wings club that has already punched its postseason ticket and is trying to avoid a third straight loss.
The Panthers have little room for error over their final four games of the season. Though they are coming off just their second regulation loss in 12 games, they only hold a two-point edge over the Capitals for first place in the Southeast Division. Florida will use a game in hand over Washington today.
Not only are the Panthers trying to hold off the Capitals, but a season-ending slump could cost them their first playoff berth since 2000. Florida is only four points ahead of ninth-place Buffalo with a game in hand.
The Panthers were bested 4-1 by the NHL's last-place team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, on Friday. Jose Theodore made 25 saves and Tomas Kopecky prevented the shutout on a goal at the 7:57 mark of the third.
"We've got a lot of hockey to play yet and right now we'll take care of the things that we can absolutely control," said Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen, whose club has lost five of six and fell to 6-2-4 in its past 12.
The Panthers are also 1-1-1 on a four-game road trip and will host the Jets on Tuesday before a big battle at Washington on Thursday.
Though Detroit is going to the playoffs for a 21st straight season, it may open up the first round on the road. The Red Wings suffered a 4-1 loss to the Predators on Friday, falling a point behind Nashville for the fourth seed in the West.
The Red Wings have four games left to the idle Predators' three and also find themselves in a tie with the Blackhawks for the fifth spot with 97 points each. Detroit has the current tiebreaker over Chicago with one fewer game played.
Pekka Rinne frustrated Detroit with 31 saves on Friday, while Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard came up with 23 saves. Howard returned to action after missing four in a row due to a groin injury.
Jiri Hudler had the lone goal for Detroit, which has lost eight of 10.
"We've just got to find a good feeling in the locker room and play some good hockey before the playoffs start," said Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg.
The Red Wings posted a 4-3 win at Florida in the lone meeting between the clubs last season, giving them a point in 17 straight games in this series. Detroit is 10-0-2 with five ties in that span.
The Panthers did snap a six-game winless streak in Detroit with a 2-1 overtime win on Nov. 20, 2009. Florida had been 0-3 with three ties in its past six trips to Motown.