With six points between them and Boston for the final playoff spot, the Panthers couldn’t afford the letdown suffered the previous time they played Winnipeg.
Perhaps home cooking — and maybe a 90-degree difference in temperature — did the trick because the Panthers looked like a completely different team Thursday night. Thanks to another solid start from Dan Ellis and strong play from all four forward lines, Florida beat Winnipeg 4-2 at BB&T Center.
The Jets thumped the visiting Panthers 8-2 on a sub-arctic night in Manitoba in January.
“I don’t even remember, it was so long ago,” said Jonathan Huberdeau, who assisted on two of Florida’s goals.
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“We’re a better team than we were there, and we had a really good road trip then and were just tired.
“We played hard and forgot about that last one. It’s a huge win, and now we have to focus on the next one.”
With the victory, Florida not only closed out its season-long, seven-game homestand with consecutive wins, but it kept pace with Boston.
The Bruins beat the visiting Lightning in a shootout to keep their six-point lead.
“We played a great game,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We came out hard, had a good first period, which was important. We played well.”
Derek MacKenzie got the Panthers going with a spectacular goal he said he couldn’t replicate if given 100 more chances.
After Shawn Thornton dug out the puck, he passed to Dave Bolland. With MacKenzie yelling for the puck 20 feet away, Bolland sent a blind pass somewhere near where MacKenzie was skating.
The Florida center — who slid over to left wing to make room for Bolland on Thursday — dove for the pass and got a piece of his stick on it. MacKenzie put the puck in the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead with 3:32 left in the first period.
“Bolland made an unbelievable pass,” said MacKenzie, who has five goals this season.
“I’ll count the rest of it to luck. Obviously, I was trying to time it, get it to the net. We talked about getting some breaks, and we’ll chalk that up as a break. I was hoping for a breakaway out of it, but the way it worked out it was a desperation play.”
Winnipeg kept coming back at the Panthers, answering each Florida goal.
Tied at 1, Brad Boyes chopped at a loose puck in front of the net and banged it off the stick of Winnipeg’s Adam Pardy and past goalie Michael Hutchinson late in the second.
The Jets battled to tie it again 3:53 into the third when Drew Stafford beat Ellis (18 saves), but Sasha Barkov’s slick wrister with less than four minutes left popped the back of the net to give Florida its final lead of the night.
Nick Bjugstad ended things into an empty net for his team-leading 24th goal of the season.
“This is a fun time of year to be playing hockey,” said Ellis, who is 2-0-1 in three starts in place of the injured Roberto Luongo.
“I haven’t gotten to play a lot of games in March. … Our team is dialed in. This was a strong team, and we got some big points.”
The trio of Barkov, Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr has been lighting up the scoresheet ever since Jagr’s arrival from New Jersey last month.
On Thursday, Barkov got the game-winning goal and has two goals and three points since Jagr joined the team — and his line — on Feb.28.
Huberdeau was the game’s top star with two assists (two goals, eight points in the past six games).
Jagr notched two assists and has a goal and five points since joining the Panthers.
“When we’re skating, we can beat anyone,” Jagr said.
Said Huberdeau: “We’re all playing simple, and [Jagr] has so many people on him, it opens things up for us.”
▪ Luongo (shoulder) practiced before Florida’s morning skate Thursday and is still day-to-day.
Luongo could take part in Friday’s practice at BB&T Center and potentially play this weekend.
“He’s getting better every day,” Gallant said.
“Hopefully, he gets a full practice, but we’ll see. We’re not going to put him in until he’s ready.”
▪ With 25 players on the active roster, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Alex Petrovic were healthy scratches.
Luongo and Al Montoya aren’t on the injured list because the Panthers don’t need to use those spots since the trade deadline has passed.