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With No Shortage of 'Swagger,' Panthers Continue Playoff Push in Winnipeg

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The Florida Panthers are so hot right now.

After dismantling the Calgary Flames 6-3 at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday night, the Panthers will look to stretch their winning streak to four games when they complete a back-to-back set against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place on Sunday night.

"We're doing a lot better job of playing within our systems," said defenseman Mike Matheson, who scored a pair of goals in Calgary. "That sounds very cliché, but it's true. I think early on in the year we were trying to get used to it a little bit. Since having a bit of time off at the All-Star break, I think we've been able to come back hard knowing that we really can't afford to leave any points out there trying to get into the playoffs."

The Panthers (26-23-6) have won seven of their last eight games, stringing together a winning streak of three-or-more games for the third time this season. They've scored a whopping 17 goals through the first three stops on a crucial five-game road trip and now sit just six points out a playoff spot with five games in hand.

"We're walking into other team's buildings with a little bit of swagger," defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "We're not sitting back and letting them take advantage of us."

The majority of that swagger is stemming from the power play, which has scored in a season-long five consecutive games. Since Feb. 1, the Panthers are operating at the second-best rate in the NHL with the man advantage, going 10-for-28 (35.7 percent) over the last seven games.

After a 2-for-4 performance in Calgary, Florida's power play is up to 19th in the league (19.2 percent).

"I think our confidence is high," Matheson said. "Obviously that comes with the territory of winning games. I think earlier on in the year we were down on ourselves a little bit and we'd get down in games and not be too assertive with our play. I think the past few games we've gone into the games expecting to win, not hoping to win."

Florida's confidence also received another big boost when Roberto Luongo returned to action for the first time since suffering a groin injury on Dec. 4. In his first start in over two months, the 38-year-old netminder stopped 30 of 33 shots on Saturday, stonewalling Calgary's offense while shaking off some expected rust.

"I've been feeling pretty good in practice, but you never know how it's going to translate to a game sometimes," Luongo said. "I felt pretty good, better than I expected. Obviously, I'm still not as sharp as a I want to be, but for the first game back I thought it was pretty good."

With Luongo resting up, backup goaltender James Reimer is expected to start between the pipes in Winnipeg. After missing three weeks with a groin injury, the Manitoba native stopped 61 of 69 shots to lead Florida to victories over Edmonton and Vancouver in the first two games of the team's current trip.

"It's been a good run and I think at some point we've got to just keep digging in and getting as many points as we can right now," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "We're still in the thick of it and we've got some games in hand. The guys are playing like it's our playoffs right now."

The Jets (34-15-9) are 5-2-1 during their season-high 10-game homestand and tied for first in the Central Division with the Nashville Predators. They've won their last two games, including a 6-1 beatdown of the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night. Winnipeg also boast one of the league's deepest forward groups, with seven players recording at least 30 points so far this season.

This will be the second and final regular-season meeting between the Panthers and Jets this season, with Florida filling up the scoresheet during a 6-4 win on Dec. 7 at BB&T Center in their first matchup.

"I think the guys are feeling good about themselves right now," Luongo said. "We believe in our systems and the way we play. We're a fast team and when we play the right way we're going to generate some scoring chances. We're on a pretty good run right now and just want to keep it going."

NOTES

- After notching a power-play goal on Saturday in Calgary, Vincent Trocheck has now recorded four goals over his last three games. The 24-year-old center captured the first hat trick of his career on Monday in Edmonton and is tied for eighth in the NHL in power play goals (10).

- Aleksander Barkov recorded a team-high three points on Saturday in Calgary. The 22-year-old center has recorded 16 points (7-9-16) over his last 14 games, which is tied with Trocheck for the most on the team during that span.

- Mike Matheson tallied a team-high two goals against the Flames on Saturday night and has earned the nickname the "Road Warrior" for his knack for finding the back of the night in other team's buildings. All eight of the 23-year-old's goals have come away from home this season, tying him with Nashville's P.K. Subban for the most road goals among NHL defensemen.

- Florida is 17-0-0 when leading after two periods this season.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad

Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Denis Malgin

Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Radim Vrbata

Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour

Defense

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk

MacKenzie Weegar - Alex Petrovic

Goalies

James Reimer

Roberto Luongo

Scratches: Ian McCoshen, Maxim Mamin, Connor Brickley

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Feb. 14: G Roberto Luongo activated from IR

- Feb. 14: G Harri Sateri loaned to Springfield (AHL)

- Feb. 7: G James Reimer activated from IR

- Feb. 7: G Samuel Montembeault loaned to Springfield (AHL)

HOW TO WATCH

When: Sunday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET

Where: Bell MTS Place - Winnipeg, MB

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)

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