The only thing more critical than winning for the Boston Bruins was doing it in regulation.
Milan Lucic scored the tiebreaking goal with 1:09 left as Boston rallied to beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 Tuesday night and maintained its hold on the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"That makes it even bigger, especially with a team trying to catch up to you," said Lucic, who also assisted on David Pastrnak's goal earlier in the third that tied it at 2-2.
Florida was one of two teams with a realistic chance at catching the Bruins, who held a three-point lead on Ottawa and were four points up on the Panthers entering Tuesday.
The Panthers could have picked up at least a point by taking the game to overtime, but Lucic's goal sent them home six points out of the playoffs with five games remaining.
"Two teams fighting for their lives and for every point," Boston captain Zdeno Chara said. "They play hard. They have a good team and it was a fight until the end."
Chara and Florida's Jimmy Hayes were still slugging it out with an exchange of gloves to the face after the final horn sounded and Boston goalie Tuukka Rask withstood a flurry with the Panthers on a power play and an extra skater for goalie Roberto Luongo.
The Panthers hit the crossbar, but the puck never crossed the goal line.
"Close, but not in the net," said Rask, who finished with 22 saves.
Brandon Pirri and Brad Boyes scored in the second period to give Florida a 2-1 lead, and Luongo finished with 26 saves.
Loui Eriksson also scored for the Bruins, who recovered from a lackluster second period when Florida scored twice and took a 2-1 lead into the third.
"There was no emotion and we needed to find it. We did and a 40-minute game today got us the win," Rask said. "There's wins that feel great and there's wins you take and you feel good. I don't think this is a great win for us but we'll take it for sure."
The victory got a little bigger shortly after Rask and the Bruins wrapped up their locker room interviews. Ottawa scored late at Detroit and the Senators won 2-1 in a shootout to remain three points behind Boston with one more game to play.
The Panthers have five games remaining, all at home, including a visit from Boston on April 9.
"Obviously now we have to get some help. It's out of our hands a little bit, but hey - go home, win as many games as you can and see what happens," Florida coach Gerrard Gallant said. "We're going to keep working and battling hard. Until somebody says we can't make the playoffs then we're still there."
Pastrnak scored the tying goal midway through the third and had an assist when Lucic beat Luongo on a wrist shot from the slot as the game appeared to be headed to overtime.
"I feel like I let my teammates down tonight. I made a couple big saves in the start of the third, but no excuses for those last two goals," Luongo said. "That's my job, to make saves. When I don't make them I feel responsible, those are goals that shouldn't go in."