(SportsNetwork.com) - The Florida Panthers aim to end a lengthy homestand on a positive note when they battle the Winnipeg Jets in a clash between playoff hopefuls.
The Panthers are 3-2-1 during a seven-game stay at BB&T Center and should be well rested for tonight's finale, as Florida hasn't suited up since Saturday's shootout victory over the New York Islanders.
However, the layoff hasn't given Roberto Luongo enough time to recover from a sprained right shoulder and the club's No. 1 goaltender will miss a third straight game on Thursday. Dan Ellis will make a third consecutive start in Luongo's absence and is 3-2-0 with a 2.61 goals against average in six career games versus the Jets.
With just three wins over the last nine games. Florida has fallen behind the pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Panthers sit six points behind the Boston Bruins for the last wild card spot. Boston is playing tonight against visiting Tampa Bay.
Ellis came through with a 25-save effort through regulation and overtime on Saturday and then stopped all three Islanders in the shootout, helping lift Florida to the much needed 4-3 decision.
With both Luongo and regular backup Al Montoya out with injuries, Ellis has been forced into the starting role for the Cats. Prior to making his season debut last Thursday versus Dallas, the journeyman goaltender hadn't seen action in the NHL since last April.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored once in regulation and again during the shootout for Florida last Saturday. The Panthers also received goals from Erik Gudbranson and Nick Bjugstad.
Florida is expected to have defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forward Tomas Kopecky back tonight after both players sat out Saturday due to flu-like symptoms.
Dave Bolland also could play this evening for the first time in nine games. The forward was sidelined with an upper-body injury.
The Jets enter Thursday with 78 points, one more than Los Angeles for the last wild card spot in the Western Conference. The Kings have a game in hand over Winnipeg and visit Vancouver tonight.
Winnipeg has split the first two tests of four-game road trip, following up Saturday's win in Nashville with a 5-4 loss Tuesday night in St. Louis.
The Jets were headed for at least a point against the Blues before Barret Jackman's surprising goal from the neutral zone with 1:03 to play lifted the St. Louis to the regulation victory. Robert Bortuzzo gathered the puck off a neutral zone faceoff win and sent it across the ice to Jackman, who played the puck off the boards and fired it from above the blue line and past an unsuspecting Ondrej Pavelec for the game-winner.
"It went in," Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said of the goal. "There's nothing more magical than that."
The fluke goal negated a spectacular comeback bid, as the Jets stormed back to tie the contest after being down 4-1 heading into the third period. After scoring twice in an 11-second span early in the period, Blake Wheeler tied the game 4-4 with a short-handed tally with 5:28 remaining.
Wheeler and Andrew Ladd posted a goal and an assist, while Lee Stempniak and Michael Frolik scored for the Jets. Michael Hutchinson allowed four goals on seven shots and was replaced by Pavelec, who stopped 19 shots.
Jets forward Bryan Little missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury and is questionable for tonight.
It's uncertain if Hutchinson or Pavelec will start in net for the Jets, who are 16-11-7 as the guest this season.
Winnipeg has won four of the last five meetings versus the Panthers and the Jets recorded a season high in goals over a visiting Florida club on Jan. 13, notching a 8-2 victory.
Florida has won three of the last four home meetings against the Jets and has gained at least a point in the past eight matchups in Sunrise, going 4-0-4 over that stretch.