Playoff-bound Panthers look to stay focused vs. Blackhawks

NHL Hockey

Jonathan Huberdeau says the Florida Panthers cannot afford to take games off even though they clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

On Thursday night, the Panthers (32-14-5, 69 points) visit the Chicago Blackhawks (22-22-5, 49) to open a two-game series. Huberdeau stresses his team still has things it wants to accomplish.

The Panthers are one of three teams in the Central Division to have claimed a postseason spot. The Panthers still have an outside chance to catch the Carolina Hurricanes and take the division title.

After its Chicago series, Florida will play its final three games of the regular season on home ice.

“Obviously we’re feeling good, it’s a big win,” Huberdeau said after totaling two goals and three assists in Florida’s 7-4 win at Nashville on Tuesday night. “Being in the playoffs, clinching, it’s a plus. It’s nice to know we’re in the playoffs, but we can’t take the final games easy. We can still finish in first, so we have to work hard and play these games like they are playoff games.”

The Blackhawks were one of the best stories in the NHL during the first half of the season as they were a contender despite losing some key pieces to injury before the season even started.

But reality has hit Chicago, and the Blackhawks are now pretty much out of the playoff picture. Chicago comes into Thursday seven points back of fourth-place Nashville (with two games in hand) for the final spot in the Central and sits in sixth place.

The Blackhawks are coming off a 7-4 loss to the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning and have lost four of the past six.

“You’re not out of it until they put the letter beside to your name,” Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We need to continue to build a mentality that we can win with going forward.”

The two-game set marks the final time Florida and Chicago will meet this season and likely will be the last time the two play as division rivals.

The NHL is expected to return to its pre-pandemic divisions next season, so Chicago goes back to the Western Conference and the Panthers return to the East.

Florida won the first four games in the season series — all in Sunrise — with the Blackhawks taking the last two in Chicago.

The last time Florida and Chicago played on March 25, the Panthers lost star center Aleksander Barkov in warmups and looked lost without him.

Chicago beat the Panthers by a combined 6-2 over the games on March 23 and 25; the Blackhawks have gone 6-9-0 since.

“If we’re going to be competitive and win some games at the end here, we need to be better,” Colliton said.

Florida coach Joel Quenneville has not announced a starter for Thursday, but the Panthers may just go with rookie Spencer Knight in net.

Knight relieved Sergei Bobrovsky after the second period Tuesday. The Panthers were outshooting Nashville 42-21 through the first two periods yet were losing 4-3.

In the third period, Knight stopped all nine shots faced. Quenneville said the 20-year-old, who made his NHL debut last week after leaving Boston College following his sophomore season, was not fazed one bit by the situation the team put him in on Tuesday.

“He shows complete composure,” Quenneville said. “It was a pretty important game. He came in like, ‘Hey, been there.’ He did his thing.”

–Field Level Media

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