The Florida Panthers are still in the driverís seat but thereís a speeding Jet looming in their rear-view mirror.
The Jets absolutely needed one of their best games of the season Thursday night and they came through in a big way, hammering the Panthers 7-0.
Had they lost, the Jets could have kissed first place in the Southeast Division goodbye. Instead, theyíre only two points back of the division-leading Panthers, are back in eighth place in the East and can still hope to at least be close after their rivals make up games in hand this weekend.
Hereís how dire it might have been:
The Panthers play twice this weekend while the Jets are off. The Washington Capitals, who are one point behind the Jets, play twice this weekend as well.
The good news is they will both make up two of the three games in hand they hold on the Jets. The bad news is the Panthers could be as much as six points ahead and the Caps could be as much as three points ahead if both teams win their games.
However, if both teams lose their games, the Jets will be in a terrific position to either win the division or at least sneak into the final playoff spot.
Itís a huge weekend and the Jets made it all the more significant by winning Thursday.
The Jets had easily their best third period of the season. They were absolutely dominant and buried their chances. You could argue it was their best game of the year as their previous biggest margin of victory was four goals ... Evander Kane had a terrific game, scoring twice and adding a pair of assists, starting with a great effort to read the eyes of Keaton Ellerby and steal the puck deep in Floridaís zone before getting a quick shot on net to beat Jose Theodore just a few minutes into the game. The early forecheck and goal set the tone for the Jets, who are a much better team when they have a good start ... Kane had another solid rush to set up the Jetsí back-breaking third goal by Kyle Wellwood early in the third. Still canít figure out why Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbranson would let Kane go wide on him, when the only way to stop the Jetsí power forward in that situation is to put him into the boards ... As well as being the Jets leading scorer, Blake Wheeler makes a lot of good defensive plays for the Jets. His backchecking saved a goal at one end and then he led a 5-on-1 (you read that right) that led to a pretty passing play and the 4-0 goal by Bryan Little. Still, the Jets got a bit lucky as Littleís shot would have gone wide if it hadnít hit Jose Theodoreís skate before going in ... A 5-on-1 while protecting a 3-0 lead seemed a little risky. I was half expecting Ondrej Pavelec to join the rush ... Honestly, a 5-on-1? How often does that happen?
A superb effort by Chris Thorburn led to the Jets second goal. Thorburn took a big hit from two Florida players behind the net, but still got the puck to Jim Slater, who fed the point and went to the net along with Thorburn and Tanner Glass. When the dust settled, most of the Panthers were down, including Theodore, and Slater was scoring on a wide-open net. The Panthers argued that someone interfered with Theodore, but it was actually his own defenceman, Ed Jovanovski, who knocked him down ... The Jets outhit the Panthers 15-8 and outshot them 13-7 in the first period, but wouldnít have had the lead if it hadnít been for two huge saves by Ondrej Pavelec off Thomas Fleischmann. Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian both gave pucks away that led to Fleischmann breakaways, but Pavelec denied the 20-goal scorer both times. Clutch ... How much bigger would this win over Florida have been if the Jets hadnít gagged in their game Monday against the Edmonton Oilers?
PAVELEC WAS HUGE
As good as they were in the first period, the Jets were under siege for most of the second and the Panthers outshot them 17-8. The last minute of the period was an absolute adventure but Pavelec was huge in the middle frame and got plenty of help from shot-blocking machine Mark Stuart ... Jets fans were holding their breath when Gudbranson hammered Wheeler with a clean hit in the second. To his credit, Wheeler bounced right back up though he had an owly look about him the rest of the game ... OK, letís see a show of hands. How many of you targeted a game against the Florida Panthers on a Thursday night in March to be one of the hottest tickets of the year. Thatís what a playoff race will do for you ... In 40 second-half games last year with the Atlanta Thrashers, Dustin Byfuglien had 13 points. In the 15 second-half games heís played this year, Byfuglien has 18 points. He entered Thursdayís game with the third most points among all NHL defencemen at 42 and his points per game average (.86) was second behind only Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson of the Senators (1.03). If Byfuglien played all 82 games this season, his pace would put him at about 70 points. A career year.
The head-to-head games, including the one Thursday night against the Panthers, the remaining two against Washington and the final game in Florida, are obviously the most crucial ones for the Jets. Keep playing like they did Thursday night in those games and theyíll be right there come playoff time ... One thing working against the Panthers down the stretch: They have 17 games in the final 31 days. The Jets have already played the busiest parts of their schedule ... Interesting to hear that Saskatoon is making initial overtures about possibly getting an NHL team down the road. Nothingís impossible, but I canít see a city and ownership group getting a team without the kind of legwork done by Mark Chipman prior to landing the Atlanta Thrashers for Winnipeg. That includes 15 exemplary years in the AHL, the establishment of an NHL-ready arena long before it was needed and nearly a decade of lobbying the NHL and its owners.