NEW YORK (CBSMiami/AP) – The Florida Panthers would be making some headway in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt if the teams around them weren’t also winning games.
The Panthers have been playing well since acquiring Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline, though that may become moot with the regular season winding down.
With 14 games remaining and a six-point gap to close in their hunt for the playoffs, the Panthers open a challenging stretch when they visit the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Florida (31-23-14) has earned 11 of a possible 14 points since the veteran Jagr joined the lineup Feb. 28, including wins in each of its last three games. The Panthers have seen a tremendous offensive improvement in that span, netting 3.29 goals per game after carrying a 2.28 scoring average through their first 61 games.
Jagr has a respectable five points in six games for the Panthers, but it’s his linemate Jonathan Huberdeau that’s been the big beneficiary. The 21-year-old winger has earned eight of his 41 points in his last six games.
Huberdeau was held off the scoresheet in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Carolina, but Brandon Pirri set a career high with his 14th goal and Dan Ellis made 27 saves to notch his first shutout since Feb. 1, 2014.
“It’s a great win,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “Dan Ellis was a real key for us. He made a number of great saves and was really big for us.”
Ellis, who became Florida’s de-facto starter following injuries to both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya on March 3, is now 3-0-1 with a 1.92 goals-against average.
“It’s been great,” Ellis said. “I enjoyed my time down in (AHL) San Antonio, and I know that my role can change at anytime here. But while I’m up, I want to enjoy it and I want to help the team. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Florida trails Washington and Boston by six points in the race for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots and has one game in hand on the Capitals.
New York (43-17-7), a Presidents’ Trophy frontrunner with 93 points, is also coming off a shutout after beating Buffalo 2-0 on Saturday.
The Rangers have exhibited a dominant defense in their last six – even without the services of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Mackenzie Skapski earned the shutout against the Sabres with 20 saves and Cam Talbot has surrendered only five goals in his last five starts, resulting in New York’s NHL-best 0.83 goals-allowed average since March 2.
“We have a very underrated offensive-defensive team,” Skapski said. “That’s what makes us the best team in the NHL right now.”
Keith Yandle got his first goal since joining the Rangers on March 1 in a trade with Arizona, and Martin St. Louis added an empty-netter to clinch his 11th 20-goal season.
“It’s a new team, and I played for so long where I had been (in Arizona), so I’m just trying to find my place here,” Yandle told the Rangers’ official website. “It felt good.”
New York trounced the Panthers in both earlier meetings this season. Derek Stepan, who has failed to record a point in nine games, had three assists in a 5-2 win in Florida on Dec. 31, and Rick Nash scored two of his team-leading 39 goals in a 6-3 victory Feb. 2.
Nash needs one goal to tie his career best set in 2008-09 with Columbus.
Florida follows this matchup with four straight games against teams presently in the Eastern playoff picture: Montreal, Detroit, Boston and Tampa Bay.
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