Jets can help spoil rival Panthers' plans

The Florida Panthers are agonizingly close to ending a long playoff drought and may get there through no help of their own, but the Winnipeg Jets can help prevent that from happening Tuesday night.
Jets players celebrate a goal during the last visit to Sunrise, Fla. Winnipeg is 1-2-2 against the Panthers this season heading into to the final meeting. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

Despite their struggles over the last two weeks, the Florida Panthers are in prime position to end the NHL's longest active playoff drought in style.

A victory over the visiting Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night would be the easiest way for the Panthers to secure their first-ever division title and return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000.

Of the four major professional sports, only the NFL's Buffalo Bills (1999 season), and major league baseball teams in Washington (1981 in Montreal), Kansas City (1985), Pittsburgh (1992), Toronto (1993) and Baltimore (1997) have longer active droughts without a postseason appearance than Florida.

The Panthers (37-25-17), however, need only a win Tuesday to clinch their first playoff berth since being swept in the first round by New Jersey in 2000. Florida also can wrap up a postseason spot if Buffalo loses in regulation to Toronto on Tuesday, or if both the Sabres and Panthers lose in overtime or a shootout.

With a three-point lead over second-place Washington in the Southeast, a victory Tuesday would also give Florida its first division title. The difference between first and second place in the division is also the difference between third and eighth in the Eastern Conference.

The Panthers and Capitals meet Thursday in Washington.

"The ball's in our court," said Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell, who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010. "Obviously for our division, it's in our hands. We have the opportunity. We're still looking at that. First you need to clinch a playoff spot and that's something that we're working on. So it'll be an exciting game Tuesday night against a division rival, a must-win game for us."

Earning two points has not been easy lately for Florida, which is 1-2-4 since a season-high five-game winning streak March 11-20. The Panthers have totaled 13 goals in their last eight games, including two or fewer in seven of those contests.

Tomas Fleischmann scored the first goal of the game but Florida again went cold in Saturday's 2-1 shootout loss at Detroit.

"Nothing's been given to us this year, and that's the fun part of it," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "This is what we've been playing for — to be a big part of the conversation as we move down the stretch."

Fleischmann has scored four of his career-high 26 goals in the last seven games. He has two goals and three assists versus Winnipeg this season, but no points in the last three meetings.

The Panthers had won three in a row over the Jets (36-34-9) before falling 7-0 at Winnipeg on March 1.

While the Jets are 23-13-4 at home in their first season back in Winnipeg, a big reason they will miss the playoffs is their dismal 13-21-5 road record. Winnipeg did win 4-3 in a shootout at Florida on Oct. 31, but lost 2-1 there Feb. 3.

The Jets could not a hold a one-goal, third-period lead and fell 3-2 in overtime at Tampa Bay on Saturday for their sixth defeat in eight games overall.

"We're not going to stop fighting," forward Chris Thorburn said. "We're going to finish out the season on a high note."

Kyle Wellwood, who matched a career high with his 18th goal Saturday, has three and three assists in the last four games. He's has two goals and four assists in five games versus Florida this season.