Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 2/9/12

UNIONDALE, NY - JANUARY 12: Sean Bergenheim #20 of the New York Islanders skates during the game against the Detroit Red Wings at the Nassau Coliseum on January 12, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
SUNRISE, Fla.- It's early February, and the Florida Panthers already are scoreboard watching. OK, so left winger Sean Bergenheim claimed he just happened to be looking up at the time Washington's shootout defeat was displayed Thursday night at the BankAtlantic Center. But don't think Bergenheim wasn't happy when he viewed it. "It was on board I think like with two or three minutes left," Bergenheim said about the Capitals' 3-2 loss to Winnipeg being displayed late in Florida's 3-1 win over Los Angeles. "That was good to see." It sure was for the Panthers, desperately trying to earn their first playoff berth in 11 years. They're locked in a battle with Washington that has resulted in playoff intensity showing up in South Florida two months before the end of the regular season. Because the two teams are in the Southeast, the Yugo of NFL divisions, it's possible only the winner will get a playoff berth. With the Panthers and Capitals flip-flopping first place in the division this week, they've also been rotating between the No. 3 and No. 9 seeds in the Eastern Conference. The No. 3 seed gets home ice in the first round of the playoffs and No. 9, of course, stays home. In feast-or-famine vein, that's like smorgasbord vs. celery. The Panthers had been in the No. 3 spot before stumbling all the way to No. 9 with Tuesday's embarrassing 4-0 loss at Washington. But now they're back to No. 3 due to the Capitals (28-21-5) blowing a 2-0 lead Thursday and getting just one point. Both teams have 61 points but Florida (25-17-11) is considered to be in first place in the division due to having played one less game. "The points are so crucial," said Panthers center Mike Santorelli. "It's so tight. Each game is so important. It's come down to playoff time now." And to think the NHL All-Star Game was contested just 11 days earlier. Santorelli sure helped the cause with a goal late in the second period that put the Panthers up 2-0. That followed Bergenheim having scored earlier in the period. The Panthers were feeling pretty good with that 2-0 lead. That was the score when Bergenheim saw Washington's loss on the scoreboard. "We kind of put ourselves in trouble with that one goal there, so we had to focus on the game," Bergenheim said about the Panthers not being able to get too excited on the bench. That's because Kings defenseman Drew Doughty scored with 2:28 left to cut the deficit to 2-1. But the Panthers soon cemented matters on an empty-net goal by right winger Matt Bradley with 49 seconds remaining. "It's a different situation than what I have been in ever before," Bergenheim, a seven-year veteran said of there being all this extra intensity surrounding Florida games now due to the nature of the standings. "We know we want to win our division. If we do, then we're going to be in the playoffs in a pretty good spot going into the playoffs. At the same time, we've got to be aware if you don't win (the division), there's a chance that we might not even make the playoffs. So, obviously, every single game is so important right now." Especially games against the Capitals. The Panthers have two more games against them, one Feb. 17 at home and the other April 5 on the road. That's the next-to-last game of the season, so that really might be like a playoff game. "I'd love to say that we need to rattle off eight games in a row, and that would be a nice way to put a stopper on all that," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said of the intensity of games now. If that doesn't happen, the Panthers figure to end up doing plenty of scoreboard watching. And it won't be by accident. Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter@christomasson
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