The Florida Panthers will aim to ascend into the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference on Saturday when they conclude a four-game road trip against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Panthers (38-31-7, 83 points) have answered a four-game losing streak by winning back-to-back contests to move within one point of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Florida, however, has just six games remaining on its schedule -- one fewer than Pittsburgh, which hosts the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins on Saturday.
"Very important. Back-to-backs, being able to get them both, was huge," forward Matthew Tkachuk said after he collected three goals and an assist in the Panthers' 5-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
"We know where we're at right now, so we know how important these two points are each and every night. Very important one to end the road trip here in Columbus on Saturday."
Tkachuk's performance pushed his point total over 100 for the second straight season, allowing him to join Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson and Mike Rogers as the lone NHL players to reach triple digits in consecutive campaigns for two different teams. Tkachuk played for the Calgary Flames before being traded to Florida last summer.
"It doesn't mean a whole lot if we don't make the playoffs," said Tkachuk, who boasts team-leading totals in goals (38), assists (63), points (101) and plus/minus rating (plus-26).
"I'm sure, maybe, being able to reflect on it, it's obviously a pretty cool milestone. I'm surrounded by so many great teammates."
Tkachuk scored a goal in Florida's 5-3 loss in Columbus on Nov. 20 and recorded a goal and an assist in the Panthers' 4-0 victory over the visiting Blue Jackets on Dec. 13.
Florida's Sergei Bobrovsky turned aside all 22 shots he faced against his former team in the latter contest. The two-time Vezina Trophy recipient, however, has sat out the Panthers' last two games due to a non-COVID illness.
Alex Lyon has turned aside 56 of 60 shots while making the team's last two starts in place of Bobrovsky.
While Florida is battling for a spot in the postseason, Columbus (23-43-8, 54 points) fell out of contention long ago. The Blue Jackets lost their third straight game following a 2-1 setback in overtime to the Bruins on Thursday.
"We play hard (and) with a lot of effort," Columbus goalie Michael Hutchinson said following his 29-save performance. "Coming down the stretch, we're not going to lay down for anyone and give them space out there just because of where they are in the standings and where we are. So, I don't know if they were expecting us to come out that hard, but it turned into a really good hockey game."
Johnny Gaudreau, who leads the team in assists (50) and points (69), had two and three, respectively, in the first meeting with Florida. Captain Boone Jenner scored one of his club-best 25 goals in that encounter as well.
Jenner, however, is focused on having his team finish the season on a strong note.
"That was a good hockey game," Jenner said of Thursday's contest. "Obviously you want to come out and get the two points for that, but like I said, we've got a lot to take from that game."
--Field Level Media