The Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers have the same amount of points with 11 games remaining on their respective regular-season schedules, but while the Blue Jackets are trying to improve their playoff seeding, the Panthers are simply trying to get in.
Florida will try to claw its way back into the Eastern Conference race while visiting Columbus hopes to continue moving up the West standings Saturday night in a key interconference clash.
The Blue Jackets (37-28-6) didn't make the playoffs in their first eight NHL seasons, but with three weeks left it looks like they'll be making their inaugural trip. Columbus has won five of six to entrench itself in sixth place, and slumping Chicago is just four points ahead in the fifth spot.
The Jackets' two most recent victories have both been over the Blackhawks - 5-3 in Chicago on March 13 and 4-3 in overtime at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday after Antoine Vermette scored the game-winner.
It was the fourth goal in as many games for Vermette, who came over last month in a trade with Ottawa, where he played in four postseasons.
"He's been solid since we got him," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's an unassuming player. He doesn't stick out until you look at the scoresheet and he's won key faceoffs, got the puck out and he's done the good job killing penalties and scored big points. Every night he gets the job done."
Florida (35-26-10) is trying to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and until recently that was looking like a strong possibility.
Yet the Panthers had lost four straight to fall into ninth place heading into a game Thursday at Toronto. The losing streak ended there, though, as they got within a point of eighth with a 3-1 home win behind 37 saves from Tomas Vokoun.
"We needed a win tonight," defenseman Bryan McCabe said. "We needed to get that monkey off our back. We had a really solid effort tonight. I thought we competed much harder and played the way we needed to play to win."
Florida has been having trouble scoring lately with the exception of leading goal scorer David Booth. Booth had two assists on Thursday and has five goals and six assists in his last six games.
Vermette's had the hot hand for the Blue Jackets recently, but their top goal scorer has been around the net as usual. Rick Nash has seven goals in his last seven games, and Columbus is 17-7-3 when its captain scores.
Both Nash and Booth may have a hard time scoring against two of the NHL's better goaltenders. Vokoun is second in the league with a .926 save percentage, while Columbus rookie Steve Mason is second with a 2.25 goals-against average.
Mason's actually been better on the road even though his record doesn't indicate it. He's 10-10-2 with a 2.16 GAA away from home while he's 19-7-1 with a 2.32 GAA at Nationwide Arena.
Vokoun, on the other hand, has been spectacular at home - 17-8-3 with a 2.13 GAA and five shutouts. He has dominated the Blue Jackets in his career - mostly from his days with Nashville - going 19-6-1 with a 2.21 GAA.
Columbus hasn't visited Florida since a 5-4 overtime win on Jan. 14, 2006.