Blue Jackets-Panthers Preview
The Columbus Blue Jackets are entering their final game of the regular season with an outside shot at a third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division, which would earn them a first-round date with the New York Rangers.
To get there, they’ll need at least one point from Saturday night’s visit with the Florida Panthers and plenty of help from Philadelphia’s last two opponents.
The Blue Jackets (42-32-7), who clinched a playoff spot Wednesday, enter the final weekend tied at 91 points with the Flyers, who have a game in hand. They’re also tied with Detroit, but the Atlantic Division foe is assured a wild-card spot. If Columbus is unable to pass Philadelphia, it’ll face either Pittsburgh or Boston in the first round.
An eighth straight win over the Panthers would assure a first-round series versus the Penguins.
The Blue Jackets made a wild-card spot more likely as their three-game winning streak ended with Friday’s 3-2 loss at Tampa Bay.
"We just have to regroup," Blue Jackets right wing Corey Troop said. "We just need to take care of business on our end."
Center Boone Jenner had a goal and an assist while defenseman David Savard also scored. Center Ryan Johansen added an assist to push his point streak to five games.
Coach Todd Richards thought his team improved as the game went on.
"When we play with some emotion and have some direction, we started to skate and push," Richards told the team’s official website. "I think it backed them off and gave us a needed push."
Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney made 19 saves, clearing the way for starter Sergei Bobrovsky to likely play against Florida. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has won his last three starts with a 1.31 goals-against average and .959 save percentage. He’s also 4-0-0 with a 1.96 GAA versus the Panthers since Feb. 16, 2011.
Columbus has scored 10 goals in two wins over Florida this year, including a 6-3 effort on March 1.
For all the problems the Panthers (29-44-8) have had this year, they can end the season with a winning streak.
After beating Toronto 4-2 in Florida on Thursday, the Panthers have won two of three and have a chance to string together wins for the first time since Jan. 20-21.
”We’re just trying to build every game and every day get better," said Brandon Pirri, whose first-period goal gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
Florida also got some long-awaited offense from Nick Bjugstad, who had two goals and an assist to snap a 20-game stretch without a goal.
"It’s one of the longest droughts I’ve been on," Bjugstad told the team’s official website. "I’ve gotten a lot of advice from guys because guys go through stuff like that, especially in this league. It’s good to get that off my back and not worry about it anymore."
The 21-year-old center leads the team with 38 points as the Panthers are in danger of becoming the first team since the 2000-01 Minnesota Wild to go an 82-game season without a 40-point scorer.
Roberto Luongo made 27 saves to win consecutive games for the first time since being acquired from Vancouver at the trade deadline. He’s 6-6-1 with a 2.42 GAA since the deal and 5-0-1 with a 1.59 GAA and .940 save percentage against Columbus since Jan. 5, 2010.