Panthers-Jets Preview

The resurgent Florida Panthers are back in position to end the
NHL’s longest active postseason drought.

Florida seeks a fourth straight victory overall – which would be
its longest win streak in nearly four years – and fourth in a row
over the Winnipeg Jets, who look to tighten the gap on the
Southeast Division leader Thursday night.

The Panthers (30-20-12) head to Winnipeg leading second-place
Washington by three points and the third-place Jets by four as they
battle for the division crown and the accompanying home-ice
advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Florida, which has a game in hand on the Capitals and three on
Winnipeg, hasn’t qualified for the postseason since being swept in
the first round by New Jersey in 2000.

“When you’ve got a history as an organization (of not making the
playoffs), you’ve got to acknowledge that,” first-year coach Kevin
Dineen said. “It makes it that much more special that we’re in the
playoff race this season.”

Dineen’s club has followed a four-game skid by winning its last
three. This is the 16th three-game winning streak Florida has
posted in the past four seasons, but the team hasn’t had a longer
one since a seven-game run in March 2008.

Another win Thursday also would give the Panthers a fifth
straight road win, something they haven’t done since Nov. 30-Dec.
12, 2008.

The latest road win came in Toronto on Tuesday, when Mike
Santorelli scored twice and Jose Theodore had 28 saves in a 5-3
victory.

Stephen Weiss had a goal after scoring twice and adding an
assist in Sunday’s win over Montreal.

“It’s a lot of fun playing meaningful games at this time of
year,” Weiss said.

Leading scorer Kris Versteeg (lower-body injury) sat out Tuesday
and will miss the next three games as well. His absence Thursday
could be a blow to the Panthers considering his success this season
against the Jets.

Florida has won the last three meetings, with Versteeg totaling
six goals and two assists. His hat trick Nov. 10 helped the
Panthers win 5-2, then he scored twice and added a shootout goal in
a 4-3 victory Jan. 21.

Versteeg scored in a 2-1 win in the most recent meeting Feb. 3.
He didn’t earn a point in the first matchup Oct. 31, which Winnipeg
won 4-3 in a shootout.

The Jets (30-27-8) hope to end the skid and pull within two
points of Florida, though they’re coming off a 5-3 loss to Edmonton
on Monday that dropped them to 3-1-2 on an eight-game
homestand.

Coach Claude Noel might be happy his team got two days off
following that contest, in which it allowed four goals in the third
period.

“We looked like we were emotionally drained, physically drained
and we didn’t have much energy,” Noel said.

Dustin Byfuglien had two assists to give him 13 along with four
goals over his last 10 games, which includes his current
career-high seven-game point streak.

Ondrej Pavelec gave up five goals for the second time in three
starts Monday and he’s struggled against the Panthers this season,
going 1-1-1 with a 3.55 goals-against average.

Theodore is 6-1-1 in his last 10 starts versus the Winnipeg
franchise despite a 3.40 GAA.

Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian missed his seventh straight game
with an upper-body injury Monday, and his return for this contest
is questionable.