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Panthers face tough road starting in Columbus
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With 3 1/2 weeks left in the regular season, the Columbus Blue Jackets don't want to coast into the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Florida Panthers, however, just want to get to the postseason.
The Blue Jackets and the Panthers will continue to chase their goals when they meet Thursday night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The Blue Jackets have lost on the road twice to the Panthers this season, once in regulation and once in a shootout.
Columbus, which was the fourth-worst team in the league last season, is pleased with its franchise-records of 44 victories and 94 points, but it sees the league-leading Washington Capitals only three points out of reach. The Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, is something this season's biggest surprise team wants.
"Washington is right there," Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky told the Columbus Dispatch. "We're right in their rear-view mirror. We're going to keep pushing and try to catch those guys."
The Blue Jackets are in third place in the Metropolitan Division behind the Capitals (97 points) and second-place Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champions. To win the trophy the Capitals not only have to win the division but also must hold off Chicago (93), Minnesota (92), San Jose (91) and the New York Rangers (90).
The Panthers just snapped a five-game losing streak Tuesday in a 7-2 home victory over Toronto. They are six points out of the final wild-card spot with three teams in their way.
"We certainly don't feel like we're out of it," Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie told the Sun-Sentinel.
The short-term task is huge. After the Blue Jackets, the Panthers play at the Rangers and the Penguins. That's three of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.
"We have to beat every team, that's just the reality of it," recently acquired left wing Thomas Vanek told the Sun-Sentinel after getting a career-high four assists against Toronto.
The Panthers will be without young defenseman Aaron Ekblad and rookie forward Denis Malgin for another week to 10 days because of concussions. This is Ekblad's third neck or concussion injury in the past 15 months.
"Aaron's a top-notch defenseman; he plays huge minutes for us and he's a leader on and off the ice," MacKenzie told the Sun-Sentinel. "We've got the talent and depth in the room and have to find ways to win."
The Blue Jackets are winning, but they are talking about the necessity to play more penalty free. They beat Philadelphia 5-3 Monday despite allowing eight power plays. They weren't so lucky in a 5-3 loss Saturday at Buffalo, when they were short-handed five times.
It's the style of hockey that looks more like last season's team than this season's edition that is on pace for a franchise record for fewest penalty minutes.
"I don't know what has gone on these last two games, but it's something we have to get back to with our game," right wing Cam Atkinson told the Dispatch. "This time of year, the mistakes and the penalties get magnified."
The Blue Jackets will have to overcome the absence of defenseman Ryan Murray for the rest of the regular season because of a broken hand suffered Saturday. But coach John Tortorella told NHL.com that he expects to see Murray back in action in the playoffs despite the prognosis that he will miss four to six weeks.
"We're going to get him on the ice as quickly as possible when the doctors give us the go-ahead, so he has his legs when he does get back into the lineup," Tortorella said. "We need to be really diligent there because I think he can be a really important guy (in the Stanley Cup playoffs)."
Updated March 15, 2017