Panthers aim to extend struggles vs. Blue Jackets

( – The Florida Panthers have been a pleasant surprise for
most of the season, but the struggling club desperately needs a win Thursday
when it hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets at BB&T Center.

The Panthers were just one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern
Conference following a three-game winning streak from Jan. 8-11, but the club
has fallen back in the postseason race thanks to its current five-game losing

Florida’s 0-4-1 stretch began with a lopsided 8-2 loss at Winnipeg on Jan. 13,
a setback that put a sour ending on an otherwise solid 4-2-0 road trip. The
Panthers have since lost four straight to open a five-game homestand and are
hoping to salvage the finale tonight.

The Panthers, who currently are seven points out of a playoff spot, lost 5-4
against Detroit on Tuesday night. Florida held a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes,
but the Red Wings opened the second period with four unanswered goals to take
control of the game.

Florida would eventually cut the deficit to 5-4, but were unable to get the
equalizing goal.

Aleksander Barkov finished with a goal and two assists in the loss, while Nick
Bjugstad supplied a goal and a helper. Al Montoya made 10 saves in relief of
Roberto Luongo, who gave up five goals on 17 shots.

“There were a lot of guys that made some mistakes tonight that cost us some
goals,” Florida head coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was the first game back
and was a sloppy game.”

Brad Boyes and Brandon Pirri also scored for the Panthers, who are mired in
their first five-game losing streak since March 27-April 4 of last season.
Florida hasn’t dropped six in a row since a 0-6-0 drought from April 11-21,

Luongo is expected to start again tonight and the veteran owns an 11-6-6 mark
and a 2.18 goals against average in 23 career outings against Columbus.

Florida also expects to have enforcer Shawn Thornton back in the lineup
tonight after he missed the last 20 games due to a groin injury. The veteran
forward has one goal, one assist and 27 penalty minutes in 22 games this

Columbus enters tonight’s tilt 12 points out of a playoff spot in the East,
but the club has won three of its last four games and is a solid 15-7-1 since
the beginning of December.

The Blue Jackets were coming off a successful stint as All-Star Game host and
stayed at Nationwide Arena for Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals.
Cam Atkinson and Fedor Tyutin each had a goal and an assist to lead Columbus
to the home victory.

Ryan Johansen and Mark Letestu each scored a goal for the Blue Jackets, while
Curtis McElhinney stopped 25 shots in the win.

“It looked like both teams had four or five days off because it was sloppy,”
said Columbus head coach Todd Richards. “There wasn’t much emotion on either
side and no one was playing good hockey.”

McElhinney will likely start again tonight as he is expected to take over the
No. 1 role while franchise goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is sidelined for at
least the next month with a groin injury. McElhinney is 3-2-1 with a 2.62 GAA
in his career against Florida.

Columbus has dominated the Panthers in recent years, taking the past 10
meetings in this series. The Blue Jackets can sweep the three-game season
series with another win tonight against Florida, which last beat Columbus with
a 5-2 road win on Nov. 21, 2007.

The Jackets have taken five in a row on the road in this series. They are
11-10-1 as the guest this season.