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.