The Panthers embark on their final stretch of games Thursday with the postseason still in sight yet farther off in the distance than when they last played.
Since beating the Islanders on Saturday night to pull within two points of Boston, Florida has watched the Bruins win their next two games over Detroit and Ottawa to extend their lead to six points.
Making their odds even longer, the Panthers will kick off their final stretch of games without goalie Roberto Luongo.
On Wednesday, coach Gerard Gallant confirmed Dan Ellis (1-0-1 in two starts) would go against Winnipeg at BB&T Center.
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“He’s getting better,” Gallant said of Luongo. “We would love to have him [Thursday] but it’s just not there. He’s just not ready to play.”
Florida has 16 games left — with three against Boston — so it has time to make up ground.
It sure won’t come easy.
The Panthers finish off their season-long seven-game homestand Thursday before traveling to Carolina on Saturday.
Florida plays three games in four days against the Jets, Hurricanes and host Rangers on Sunday before returning to face a hellacious three-game run against Montreal, Detroit and Boston.
Then comes another five-game trip consisting of games against four teams in the postseason conversation.
“All year we’ve played good against the better teams in the league,” Shawn Thornton said.
“We can’t focus on the other side, just worry about what we’re doing. We have three games against the team we’re chasing. Those are going to be big games. Nothing is easy this time of year. No one is going to do us any favors.”
The Panthers hope Luongo will be able to return this weekend from a shoulder injury that has cost him three games.
Luongo worked out before practice again Wednesday but didn’t participate in the full workout.
“We would like to have him back as soon as possible,” Gallant said. “It’s not anything long term, but it won’t be [Thursday].”
▪ Center Dave Bolland will be back in the lineup Thursday after missing eight games as a result of taking a hard hit in Pittsburgh on Feb. 22.
Bolland’s return was delayed by the flu.
“I probably could have come back but I only had one skate in before I got sick,” he said. “I could have come back Saturday, but I would have been a mess.”
Bolland was working on Florida’s second line with Nick Bjugstad taking another practice day off. Gallant said Bjugstad would play Thursday.
“He’s just sore,” Gallant said. “We’ve had some days off and were able to give him a few days off. He’s played a lot of hockey.”
Thursday: Panthers vs. Jets
Thursday: Panthers vs. Jets
When, where: 7:30 p.m., BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV, radio: FSFL; WSBR 740.
Series: Jets/Thrashers lead 45-32-5.
Noteworthy: The host Jets walloped Florida 8-2 back on Jan. 13 snapping the team’s season-long three-game win streak and sending it into a five-game tailspin.