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Maurice goes for win No. 500 when Jets face Panthers

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

AT THE MORNING SKATE


WINNIPEG – Home, home sweet.

For one day, anyway.

Tonight, the Winnipeg Jets face off with the visiting Florida Panthers after spending a week out on the road.

“It almost feels like a road game,” Mathieu Perreault said. “We just got back yesterday and are leaving again tomorrow (for Dallas and Chicago).”

The Jets, who currently hold the top spot in the Western Conference wild card race with a 21-14-8 record, are coming in on the heels of a positive trip. After opening the set with a disappointing loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the visitors bounced back in a big way, collecting three of a possible four points on back-to-back nights in Los Angeles and Anaheim.

“You’re seeing the evolution of our team and that we're building something here,” Jay Harrison said. “We believe that we’re competitive with those teams at the top of the league. We’re going to continue to establish that and that’s on a night-in, night-out basis.”

Literally. The Jets are currently in the midst of their most demanding stretch of the season, playing seven games (five on the road) in 11 nights.

“There’s no ease to the game right now,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “When the brain starts getting a little fatigued, and that’s our fear, it’s not going to be an easy game. Mentally, you start trying to take an easier route.

“…but they’re not going to allow that to happen.”

Meanwhile, the 20-11-9 Panthers have won three straight – all on the road on this four-game, Western Canadian tour – and are only one point back of the Atlantic Division rival Boston Bruins, who currently hold one of the conference’s wild card playoff spots.

Thank you, Roberto Luongo.

The all-star netminder has had an exceptional season, posting a 17-7-7 record, along with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.

Luongo will indeed get the start tonight, while former Jet Al Montoya will back him up.

“He’s a primetime goalie,” Evander Kane said. “His reputation speaks for itself – he’s one of the best, so we’re going to have to be sharp.”

While Luongo has been key to the Panthers’ success this season, their turnabout campaign is due, in large part, to their commitment to a staunch defensive system. With Gerard Gallant behind the bench, the Panthers have allowed only 2.50 goals per game.

It’s a good thing, too, because at 2.38 goals per game on the offensive side, the Panthers are the lowest-scoring playoff team in all of the National Hockey League.

Stingy.

“In watching them, I’m impressed with our consistent they are with their game,” Maurice said. “They’ve got a lot of depth in their lineup and good players one each line. I’m a huge Jussi Jokinen fan – he’s a great, smart player. If you go through their last few games, they’re not out of position often.

"Our challenge here, and I think you saw it in the first 45 minutes of the Edmonton game (a 4-2 win), is not trying to keep putting those pucks through the middle in the neutral zone, and even in the offensive zone.

“There are not a lot of holes in their schemes.”

Michael Hutchinson will get the start in goal for the Jets. The 24-year-old is coming off a 5-4 shootout win over the Kings on Saturday night and is now 11-4-2 on the year.

-- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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