SUNRISE, Fla. — The St. Louis Blues, who visit the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, clinched a playoff spot for the sixth straight year and could make some noise.
After reaching the Western Conference finals last season, the Blues fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1, giving the job to Mike Yeo, who was already on staff.
The Blues are 19-8-2 since, positioning themselves as a legitimate Stanley Cup title contender, especially considering their strong run last year.
St. Louis (43-29-7) received a boost Tuesday when third-line center Jori Lehtera returned from a concussion in a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Three more St. Louis players may return against the Panthers — second-line center Paul Stastny (broken foot), and defensemen Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) and Robert Bortuzzo (upper body).
But even if they don’t make it back quite yet, Yeo said the Blues’ ability to overcome those injuries bodes well for the postseason.
“I’ve been impressed,” Yeo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It says a lot about the character of our group.
“It’s one thing for our coaching staff to say, ‘Injuries don’t matter. We have to continue to do our jobs.’ But it has to come from inside the locker room, and that’s where our leaders have done a great job. There’s been no drop-off. If anything, they’ve raised their level.”
While the Blues prepare for the playoffs, the Panthers are getting ready for summer vacation and endeavors such as golf and tropical beaches.
Multiple published reports Tuesday indicate what has long been suspected — the firing of Gerard Gallant just one month into this season after he led the Panthers to a surprising 2016 Atlantic Division title was an abject failure, and general manager Tom Rowe, who became the interim coach, will not return in the latter role.
The Panthers went 11-9-1 under Gallant before management hit the panic button. The team is 22-26-10 under Rowe and lost five games in a row as well as 16 of the past 21.
Florida (33-35-11) was eliminated from playoff contention last week, and Monday, a Panthers fan hired a plan to fly over the BB&T Center with a banner that read: “Rowe must go! Call him a cab!”
Rowe said he was fine with fans voicing their opinions.
“I’m a big boy with thick skin,” Rowe said. “Fans pay good money to watch us play. I want to tell the fans that it’s been a disappointing year, but we will be back next season, and we will be in the playoffs.”
If the Panthers make the playoffs next season, it won’t be with Rowe behind the bench, at least according to those reports.
The Panthers have only three games left in their season. After the Blues visit, the Panthers end their home schedule with Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Florida’s season finale is Sunday at the Washington Capitals.
It is unlikely that three Panthers stars will play again this season. Goalie Roberto Luongo (lower body), defenseman Aaron Ekblad (neck) and center Aleksander Barkov (upper body) are all out with injuries.
Backup goalie James Reimer, who missed three consecutive games because of a head injury, could return to start against the Blues.
Meanwhile, Panthers right winger Jaromir Jagr, one of the NHL’s all-time greats, said this week he is not sure if he will return to Florida next season.
Jagr said he and the Panthers will have discussions after the season is over, but he added he still wants to play and still enjoys competing for the franchise.