Florida Panthers (13-20-6) at Winnipeg Jets (20-19-2)
The Florida Panthers make their last trip of the season to Winnipeg tonight in what will be a crucial game for the Jets with major playoff implications. The Jets currently occupy the ninth spot in the Eastern Conference with 42 points. They are only two points behind the 6th, 7th and 8th place teams the Senators, Islanders and Rangers respectively who all have 44 points.
This will be the Panthers last trip to Winnipeg as the Jets Southeast Division rivals. Under the new NHL Realignment plan set to take effect next season, the Jets will be playing in the Western Conference meaning trips to Winnipeg will become a rarity for the Panthers. Whether or not that is a good thing is up in the air. Since the Jets moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta, the Panthers are 2-1-1 in the Peg.
The Panthers have raised their level of play recently and have an opportunity to play the spoiler role tonight. The Panthers also have a chance to lift themselves from last place in the Eastern Conference as a win tonight would give them 34 points and tie them with the Carolina Hurricanes for 14th in the East, a small victory but a victory nonetheless.
The Panthers have won four of their last five games and six of their last ten. The team has been winning games with help from an influx of young players receiving their first tastes of the NHL. Players like Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad and Jacob Markstrom are part of the recent Panther youth movement that has the team looking primed for future success. They join fellow youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore and Erik Gudbranson, players who have been contributing to the team all season.
The Jets who are 4-6 in their last 10 games have seen their Southeast Division lead slip away to the red hot Washing Capitals. With a win tonight against the Panthers and a Capitals loss, the Jets could bring themselves into a tie with Washington for the division lead. By any standard, this is an absolute must win game for the Jets. Playing against a last place team in your home rink with the playoffs in sight, the Jets need this game. Simply put, a playoff caliber team would take care of business tonight against the Panthers. Are the Jets a playoff caliber team? That remains to be seen. I think a loss tonight to the Panthers will all but eliminate the Jets from contention. Not mathematically, but morally, because if you cannot beat a last place team in your own rink when the points are crucial, then you probably don’t belong in the playoffs.
Anyhow, it should be exciting theatre tonight. The beauty of being out of the Panthers being out of contention is Panther fans can sit back and enjoy the game, free of nerves and expectations. If the Panthers win, fans can revel in playing the spoiler role, if they lose, well thats no big deal and the team will be one step closer to a high draft pick.