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Anyone notice the red-hot Florida Panthers creeping close to a playoff spot?

The Florida Panthers entered the month of March needing a real serious run to have any possible chance of keeping their playoff hopes alive.

But a perfect 7-0-0 record? Where the heck did that come from? "Obviously with this season coming down pretty fast, there was not really much room for error for us if you look at the standings," Panthers netminder Tomas Vokoun said Monday on an NHL conference call. "I think the team and obviously the players started realizing that, and we have been playing a lot better defensively, and that means we've been playing much better without the puck."

The Panthers suddenly find themselves only two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But they've got company. The Buffalo Sabres are ninth with 79 points while the Washington Capitals are next at 78 - the same total as Florida but with a game in hand.

Still, the playoffs are actually in reach for a franchise that has only been in them three out of 13 seasons since their inception.

"We have some big games coming up, and obviously I want to get into the playoffs, and I think everybody here wants to do that," said Vokoun, the NHL's third star of the week. "This franchise needs it. ...

"We worked hard to get into position now to have a chance, and I think it would be really bad if we wasted it."

All eight remaining games come against Southeast Division opponents, the Panthers going 13-10-1 so far this season against their divisional opponents. Four of those eight remaining games are against two clubs playing out the string in Tampa Bay and Atlanta (two games against each).

Next up, however, is Carolina at home on Thursday night. The Hurricanes lead the division by five points over Washington and Florida. That would be the ultimate prize - the No. 3 seed in the conference by virtue of winning the Southeast. The Panthers also play in Carolina on April 4.

Never this year have the Panthers felt this confident.

"Definitely," said Vokoun, who sports a 2.74 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. "I think if you asked me three or four weeks ago, we lost some really close games and our confidence wasn't good at all.

"It's natural when you're winning and playing well, your confidence goes up. I think our confidence has to be at the highest point of the whole season."

Panthers captain Olli Jokinen has been terrific of late after struggling in late February. His name had been prominently mentioned in trade rumours heading into the Feb. 26 deadline and that may have affected his play.

"Yeah, I mean, it could be part of it," said Vokoun. "I think personally Olli is playing so much better. It doesn't help anybody's performance when you're hearing those kind of things all the time. If you think about them or not, it gets to you, and I think the last few games he's just been playing unbelievable.

"It's not just about scoring goals, but he's playing good on both sides of the puck ... I would imagine for any player, it's got to be - now he knows he's going to be here and can relax. It doesn't help anybody to play with uncertainty if you really want to be on the team or not."


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