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Apr 10, 2024 1:21 pm

Panthers gear up for playoffs vs. Blue Jackets

Panthers, Blue Jackets

The Florida Panthers are playing what can be considered the “soft” part of their remaining schedule before the season ends with a bang next week.

On Thursday night, the Panthers — currently the second seed in the Atlantic Division — will play host to the out-of-contention Columbus Blue Jackets in Sunrise, Fla. This soft stretch also includes Buffalo, which is on tap for Saturday.

But then the Panthers will end their regular season with a tougher task next week — at home against Toronto.

Florida (49-24-6, 104 points) has passed the 2015-16 Panthers (103 points) for the second-most points in franchise history. The 2021-22 Panthers posted 122 points, a franchise record that is out of reach for this season.

Still, the current Panthers are in a good spot.

“We’re playing for playoff positioning,” said Panthers backup goalie Anthony Stolarz, who shut out Ottawa 2-0 on Tuesday.

Florida forward Anton Lundell, who scored on a breakaway after receiving a brilliant stretch pass from Stolarz against the Senators, said the Panthers are preparing for an encore postseason performance after reaching the Stanley Cup Final last year.

“This is about going toward playoff hockey,” Lundell said. “We want to be ready when Game 1 (of the playoffs) starts.

“It’s going to be pretty simple — get speed and play fast hockey.”

Sam Reinhart surely plays that style, which helps explain why he leads the Panthers with a career-high 53 goals. He also leads Florida with 90 points, and Matthew Tkachuk tops the squad in assists (59).

The Panthers, who rested defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson on Tuesday, have two key injury concerns. Forward Carter Verhaeghe, who is second on the team with 33 goals, has missed four straight games. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad (18 points in 51 games) has missed three straight contests.

Despite that, Panthers coach Paul Maurice said he has a confident team. And that confidence extends to either of Florida’s two goalies: starter Sergei Bobrovsky and Stolarz.

“You have to have that belief every night to get into the playoffs,” Maurice said. “Using two goaltenders is normal now. We have a lot of belief in Anthony.”

Bobrovsky (34-17-4, 2.43 goals-against average) will likely start on Thursday. But Stolarz (15-7-2, 2.03 GAA) is a great option, too.

Meanwhile, Columbus (26-41-12, 64 points) has lost three of its past four games, including a 5-2 defeat at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. Kirill Marchenko scored twice for the Blue Jackets.

Marchenko has scored a career-high 23 goals this season, and he is feeling good after beating Lightning star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy twice.

“He’s a great goalie,” Marchenko said. “It’s good confidence for me, but if we (had won the game it would’ve been) more confidence for our team.”

Confidence for a Columbus team that has now missed the playoffs four straight years may be hard to find, but at least the Blue Jackets have exceeded their 59-point performance from last season.

The banged-up Blue Jackets, who have 11 players on their injury list, are powered by Johnny Gaudreau, who leads Columbus in assists (48) and points (59). Defenseman Zach Werenski is second on the team with 53 points.

–Field Level Media

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