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Florida Panthers' magic number at 3 to end playoff drought

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The host Toronto Maple Leafs had just held on for a thrilling victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, and suddenly the collective pulse of South Florida went through the roof.

The Florida Panthers -- who haven't been to the Stanley Cup playoff party since the 1999-2000 season -- are within striking distance of the show.

Regardless of what Washington and Buffalo do in their final three games, the 'Cats will clinch a spot in the National Hockey League's post-season tournament with three points in their last four games, and would claim the Southeast Division title with four of eight possible points.

Of course, that's assuming the Capitals and Sabres win all of their remaining games. A few losses by those squads and the road could be made even easier.

Washington did post a shootout win over Montreal just minutes after the Buffalo-Toronto final on Saturday to pull just two points back of the Panthers (90 to 88 points), but Florida is still in control of its playoff destiny.

For Head Coach Kevin Dineen and the Panthers players, backing in is not the way they want the scenario to unfold. They want to have a great week, starting Sunday for a 4 p.m. faceoff in Detroit.

Florida plays at Washington on Thursday night, April 5 in a pivotal match-up for both divisional opponents. That's it for the regular-season road games.

At a time when the Miami Marlins are creating a buzz with the opening of their new ballpark, and the Miami Heat drive toward another National Basketball Association championship run, the skaters from Sunrise are on the verge of ending 12 years of frustration.

It's time to get very, very excited and pack the BankAtlantic Center on Tuesday when the Winnipeg Jets come to town, and Saturday for the regular-season home finale against the Carolina Hurricanes. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.

Buffalo's loss Saturday was clearly destructive to its playoff hopes, and lifted the Panthers' spirits following tough losses in Minnesota and Columbus.

"Florida clearly was the big winner tonight," one analyst on the NHL Network said late Saturday night.

The excitement level in South Florida is about to rise to a fever pitch.

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