The Winnipeg Jets have started a critical six-game homestand with two victories as they get ready to meet the Eastern Conference's worst team.
The Florida Panthers, however, have given Winnipeg plenty of trouble this season and are surprisingly playing their best hockey while winning four of five.
The Jets insist they won't be overlooking the Panthers when these Southeast Division rivals complete their season series Thursday night.
Winnipeg (20-19-2) is two points behind first-place Washington in the division, although the Capitals have a game in hand. The Jets are also part of a logjam of teams for the final few conference postseason spots.
Poor results against Florida (13-20-6) could prove to be costly if Winnipeg fails to reach the playoffs. The Jets have needed overtime to win twice while losing the other two matchups by a combined score of 10-4.
"We understand what's at stake here," Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "So whether we're playing them or another team, I don't think it really matters the success we've had whether it's good or bad against a certain team. We're playing them right now, we just have to make sure we're going out and getting the two points."
Leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau has a team-high four goals in the season series for Florida while Tomas Fleischmann has a team-best six points. Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler each have four points to lead the Jets, who claim that the Panthers have their full attention.
"I think in the middle of the season you really have some trouble playing a team below you in the standings," Winnipeg center Eric Tangradi said. "But I think where we are at, our personal situation in the standings that our playoffs have already begun."
Ladd and Wheeler have combined for six points in the first two games of this homestand, 4-1 victories over Philadelphia on Saturday and Buffalo on Tuesday. Those wins came on the heels of a five-game slide.
The Jets will have four days off after this contest and want to go into that break with the right momentum.
"It's going to be nice to have a few days off, have a few practices and get ready for a big stretch at the end of the year," goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said Wednesday. "But we have a game tomorrow and we have to play as hard as we can."
Fleischmann has one point in six straight games for the Panthers, who won 2-1 over Ottawa on Sunday in their last game.
Dmitry Kulikov scored on the power play and Florida killed off all five penalties. Scott Clemmensen had 40 saves for his first victory following an eight-game stretch where he went 0-5-0 with a 4.25 goals-against average.
"That was a good night for our special teams, specifically on the penalty kill," coach Kevin Dineen said. "Our guys worked hard, they did everything we needed them to do."
Florida's power play is one of the best units in the NHL at 21.7 percent. The man advantage has fueled this 4-1-0 run, with the Panthers converting 7 of 14 chances.
Huberdeau leads all rookies with 27 points - seven in his last six games.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved