In what could best be described as their biggest game since their last game, the red-hot Florida Panthers have a chance to move into a playoff spot with a good showing against the streaking Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
After walking away with big wins in Montreal and Ottawa over the first two stops on their three-game road trip, the Panthers pulled within one point of New Jersey for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand.
With 11 games left to play in the season, Florida, which has gone 18-5-1 since the All-Star break, can overtake the idle Devils for a playoff spot with a win or overtime loss in Columbus.
"The thought going into the game is that it's basically playoff hockey right now," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. "This is a playoff game for us, a four-point swing against these guys who we're obviously chasing in the standings. This is going to be a huge game."
While the Devils are by far their closest target, the Jackets are also very much in play for the Panthers. Florida trails Columbus by six points with three games in hand, but has struggled to gain any ground in recent weeks due to the fact the Jackets haven't lost a game since March 2.
In order to snap the Jackets' nine-game winning streak - the second longest in franchise history - Panthers coach Bob Boughner said a hot start will be key. Florida is 28-10-2 when scoring the first goal this season and just 9-17-5 when falling behind 1-0.
"We've got to be ready when the puck drops," Boughner said. "We talked about how fast they start and how good they've been at home. We were in this situation a few weeks ago when we were on a run and we were winning eight in a row.
"If we can play well the first 5-10 minutes I think we'll settle the game down and I think we dictate the pace. But you've got to be ready. This is a good hockey team. They roll four lines and their defense is jumping."
The Panthers (37-27-7) are coming off a 7-2 win in Ottawa on Tuesday in which they displayed on their most-balanced offensive attacks this season. The team boasted seven different scorers against the Senators, with three of the team's four forward lines finding the back of the net.
In 24 games since the All-Star break, Florida has nine different players with at least 10 points.
"We've been getting contributions from pretty much everyone in the lineup," said Trocheck, who will play in his 300th NHL game tonight. "I think that's a really big part of our team. It says a lot about our team and how much depth we have. Moving forward, we're going to need those guys to step up."
The Jackets (41-28-5) extended their streak with a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night. Columbus has recorded at five goals in four of their last five games, scoring the third-most goals in the NHL since March 12. Artemi Panarin leads the team with eight points (4-4-8) during that span.
"This is a huge matchup," said Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, whose 15 goals are tied for second in the league among defensemen. "I think we've been looking forward to this for a while. Obviously, they've done a great job climbing up in the standings, but so have we. We're both two hot teams.
"They come out hot in their own building. They're a very strong, disciplined team. They're very attentive to the details at all ends of the ice. We've got to break out well as defenseman. We've got to forecheck well. We've got to do all those things tonight to beat this team."
Roberto Luongo is expected to start for the Panthers after posting a 28-save shutout in Montreal on Monday. For the Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky will likely slot in between the pipes in search of his seventh consecutive victory.
Already in control of their own playoff destiny, it's time for the Panthers to make their move.
"From the forecheck to the neutral zone to the offensive zone to our goalies, everyone's doing the right things right now," Ekblad said. "Our coaches are getting us prepared the right way. I think we just feel good. We're confident as a team and we're not wavering from our resilience."
-- Aleksander Barkov enters tonight's game with 19 points (6-13-19) over his last 14 games. With two assists in Ottawa on Tuesday, the 22-year-old center surpassed Olli Jokinen (71, 2007-08) and Ray Whitney (71, 1999-00) for sole possession of fifth place in franchise history for points in a single season (26-47-73).
-- Roberto Luongo has earned wins in eight of his last 11 starts (8-2-1), owning a 2.51 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and two shutouts in those contests. The 38-year-old netminder is six games shy of becoming only the third goalie in NHL history to reach 1,000 games played.
-- Keith Yandle enters tonight's contest ranking first among Florida's defensemen in points (49) and assists (42), while also leading the club in total ice time (1742:37). With one more point, he will achieve the third 50-point season of his career and his first since 2013-14.
-- Evgenii Dadonov leads the Panthers with 13 goals since the All-Star break. The 29-year-old winger has registered 19 points (8-11-19) over his last 14 games, with eight multi-point performances during that span.
-- Since making his Panthers debut on March 10, Frank Vatrano has recorded three goals and four points (3-1-4) over six games. Over those six games he has posted 19 shots and owns a 15.8 shooting percentage.
-- After missing three of the last four games with a lower-body injury, defenseman Alexander Petrovic is expected to make his return to Florida's lineup tonight.
PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)
Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Denis Malgin
Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Frank Vatrano
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
MacKenzie Weegar - Alexander Petrovic
Scratches: Connor Brickley, Maxim Mamin, Radim Vrbata, Ian McCoshen
- March 10: F Frank Vatrano activated from IR
HOW TO WATCH
When: Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m.
Where: Nationwide Arena - Columbus, OH
TV coverage: FOX Sports Florida (check local listings)
Florida Panthers Radio Network Presented by HARD Lifestyle Beverages: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)
Where to stream it: FOX Sports GO and NHL.TV (outside state of Florida)