TV: FOX Sports Florida
TIME: 7 p.m.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — At the start of the NHL season, virtually no one would have circled on the schedule a late March matchup between the Florida Panthers and the Columbus Blue Jackets as a pivotal game.
But Thursday night at Nationwide Arena, two of the league’s hottest teams will square off in a matchup that could go a long way toward deciding who’s in and who’s out of the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
The surging Blue Jackets (41-28-5) have won a season-high nine consecutive games, moving one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers into third place in the Metropolitan Division.
The Panthers (37-27-7) are lurking one point behind the New Jersey Devils for the second wild-card spot in the conference after going 11-2-1 in their last 14 games and 18-5-1 since the All-Star break.
“We’ve done well the last couple of games on this road trip, but on Thursday we’ll have to work for everything we get against Columbus,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “They’re playing their best hockey of the season and it’s going to be a great contest between two desperate teams.”
Florida has 11 games remaining, two more than New Jersey, and could jump the Devils in the final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season. But every point is magnified now, and a win in Columbus would definitely aid the Panthers’ cause.
“Obviously, it is an important game,” Boughner said, “but we got 10 more important games coming in.”
The Panthers’ latest road win came Tuesday night in a 7-2 rout of the Ottawa Senators. Forward Nick Bjugstad and six teammates turned in multi-point games, and goaltender James Reimer made 33 saves.
“If we continue to focus on what we do well and continue to execute, it’s going to be a fun run here,” Bjugstad said. “So we’ve got to keep going and move on. … We’ve got a big one Thursday.”
Roberto Luongo, who had 28 saves in the Panthers’ 2-0 over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night, is expected to be back in goal against the Blue Jackets. Also a possibility to return is Panthers defenseman Alexander Petrovic, who has missed three of the past four games with a lower-body injury.
The Panthers will be trying to beat the Blue Jackets for the first time this season, having lost 7-3 at Florida on Nov. 2 and 3-2 in a shootout on Jan. 7 in Columbus.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple months,” Boughner said. “I think we’re peaking and playing our best (hockey) of the year at the right time.”
The same definitely could be said for the Blue Jackets, who flipped a switch in March and found a groove in a run that has propelled them from a bubble team to a solid playoff contender.
The Blue Jackets are feeling good about themselves, but coach John Tortorella knows success can be fleeting. He also realizes they’ll be facing a team that’s desperate and on a serious roll.
“They’re one of the hottest teams for the past couple months here, with their record,” Tortorella said of the Panthers. “We got through (Tuesday’s) game, found a way to get two points. Now we’ll just worry about the next game, nothing else, and go from there.”
Columbus extended its streak with a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night to complete an impressive back-to-back that started with a 5-4 overtime win in Boston on Monday. Artemi Panarin led the Blue Jackets with the second hat trick of his career, giving him a team-best 25 goals and 68 points this season.
The Blue Jackets’ nine-game streak ties the second-longest in franchise history.
“I don’t even care about the streak,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “I just want points. … It’s a pretty cool feather in the cap, but right now, all we’re about is getting into the playoffs.
“We want it to continue, don’t get me wrong, but our focus now is just getting ready for another big game on Thursday.”
The Blue Jackets have won their last three games without All-Star defenseman Seth Jones, who is sidelined with an upper-body injury. He is listed as day to day.