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Posted On Tuesday, 04.03.2012 / 3:00 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Versteeg starting to rediscover his offensive game

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kris Versteeg is still looking to end his scoring drought, but he's been creating chances in recent games and his overall play has picked up.

The Florida Panthers right wing clearly is not "brutal" anymore.

Versteeg has used that term to describe his play a couple of times this season, most recently after a 3-2 shootout loss to Edmonton on March 23.

That was one of the nine scoreless games Versteeg has played since returning from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss nine games. Versteeg also went scoreless the six games before the injury, meaning he's on a 15-game goal-less streak.

But after going eight games without even a point, Versteeg picked up an assist in each of Florida's last two games and he's also come close to scoring on a couple of occasions.

"Last four games it's been a lot better and feeling better out there, too," he said. "You come back and you want to be a big part right away and everyone is firing on all cylinders. You've got to, I guess, get back in the game and get back into the swing of things. When you're hard on yourself, it's tough, but I definitely feel the last four games it's been going better, and I expect better every game."

Versteeg led the Panthers in scoring most of the season before just recently being overtaken by both Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss.

There's no question the Panthers could use some more offense from Versteeg, starting with Tuesday's game against Winnipeg.

"Steeger is a guy that cares a lot and when things don't work out ... he's not a guy that hides his emotions," coach Kevin Dineen said. "When things are not going the right way, he is extremely hard on himself. When you take a breath and you regroup and you go out and start doing little things, even if the points aren't coming, you still feel like you're contributing. He realizes his importance to the team and, as always, when his focus is in the right place, he's a top-end player for us."

Versteeg, acquired last summer in a trade with Philadelphia, said he may have been trying to do too much after returning from his injury.

His last goal came Feb. 12 in a 4-1 road victory against the New York Islanders, but he's not concerned about the goal-less streak.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "It was more so frustration about trying to do stuff when maybe my body couldn't at the time or my mind couldn't at the time because you're trying to get back into it. Now, I'm starting to feel [better] and these last four games are a good step."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.03.2012 / 2:48 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets give Cormier another look with Wellwood out

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Forward Patrice Cormier, one of the players acquired from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, is getting another look with the Winnipeg Jets.

Cormier has been recalled from the St. John's IceCaps to replace Kyle Wellwood, who will miss the rest of the season with a broken ankle.

It's the fourth call-up this season for Cormier, who didn't record a point in his first six games. Cormier had 17 goals and 14 assists in 54 games with St. John's.

Wellwood, for his part, ended his season with a career-high 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists). Wellwood, who is fourth on the team in scoring, was injured in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss at Tampa Bay when he was hit by a slapshot from teammate Grant Clitsome.

The Jets' third-leading scorer, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, will remain in the lineup despite being hampered by a lower-body bone bruise. There had been some thought he might be shut down because Winnipeg is out of playoff contention, but coach Claude Noel said Byfuglien would be in the lineup Tuesday night against Florida.

"Buff is going to play the games," Noel said. "Nothing has changed with him. He still has the same issue and he'll have it the rest of the year. It's something we deal with. He'll be in the lineup."

The Panthers, for their part, have no apparent injury issues beyond their two players on injured reserve -- forwards Matt Bradley and Jack Skille.

Based on the lines at the morning skate, it appears forwards Jerred Smithson, Krystofer Barch and Mike Santorelli will be healthy scratches.

Here are the projected lines:

JETS
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Antti Miettinen
Chris Thorburn - Jim Slater - Spencer Machacek
Patrice Cormier - Tim Stapleton - Nik Antropov

Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Grant Clitsome

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason

PANTHERS

Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Scottie Upshall - Shawn Matthias - Wojtek Wolski
Marco Sturm - John Madden - Tomas Kopecky

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen

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Posted On Tuesday, 04.03.2012 / 2:28 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Spoiler role aside, Jets just want to finish strong

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Winnipeg Jets are back in action Tuesday night for the first time since being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

But they say they're not concerning themselves with playing the role of spoilers against the Florida Panthers.

"We look at it more as a situation where we want to try to play well and win," coach Claude Noel said after the morning skate. "With our road record being what it is, we'd like to continue getting points and hopefully getting two points and getting a win out of here would be good for us. We talked about finishing out on a positive note and that's what we want to do."

In their first year in Winnipeg after moving from Atlanta, the Jets saw their playoff hopes officially terminated in a 3-2 overtime loss at Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

The Jets found themselves only two points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference after beating Washington 4-3 in overtime on March 23, but have gone 2-5-1 since.

"Obviously, we're disappointed with how our season ended up and being on the outside of the playoff picture," captain Andrew Ladd said. "It's something that as a player, it's the time of year you want to be playing. It's where the fun starts. We've still got some work to do to make sure it doesn't happen next year."

It was fitting that the Jets' playoff hopes would end on the road because that's where the team really struggled this season.

Winnipeg has only 31 points in 39 road games to rank 28th in the League. The Jets' last road game will be Thursday against the New York Islanders before they close the season at home against Tampa Bay on Saturday.

That means the Jets will play a game with playoff implications for the last time Tuesday.

"We should be on the same page, everybody, to finish hard, to finish the season with three wins," goalie Ondrej Pavelec said. "Of course, it's disappointing we didn't make the playoffs, but that doesn't mean we're going to stop playing. The fans, everybody deserves for us to play as hard as we can and we'll see how everything is going to go.

"I think it's going to be pretty exciting tonight. Florida is battling for a playoff spot. It should be a great game. It's going to be a big chance. We expect the three wins and finishing strong and having fun."

The Panthers certainly don't expect the Jets to let them clinch the division title without a fight.

"We know Winnipeg is a well-coached team," defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "They respect the game, so they're going to play hard. We've got to be on our toes early."

Ladd is familiar with several Panthers players, having played in Chicago with Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.

After being traded to Atlanta last season, Ladd once again is playing out the end of the regular season with nothing at stake.

"It's tough," he said. "They mean pretty much absolutely nothing now. At the same time, we owe it to ourselves and to our fans to show up and work and see where the chips fall. It's all part of creating a culture where you show up and you work every day. This is part of it."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.03.2012 / 2:02 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers' Weiss chasing very special birthday gift

SUNRISE, Fla. -- It's almost like deja vu for Stephen Weiss.

Ten years ago on this day, Weiss celebrated his 19th birthday by playing in his first NHL game and scoring his first goal in a 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh.

The Florida Panthers center turned 29 on Tuesday, with the possibility of clinching his first NHL playoff berth looming as an even better birthday present.

"I think [I'm] more excited today, more nervous back then," Weiss said when asked to compare the emotions of both days. "But it's cool that it falls on the same day. My mom's in town, so it's nice. Hopefully we'll have something fun to talk about after the game."

Earlier this season, Weiss became Florida's all-time leader in games played. But he has yet to play a game in the postseason.

That's likely to change this year, with Florida's magic number down to two to clinch a playoff berth and the Southeast Division title. That means a victory over Winnipeg on Tuesday will give the Panthers the first division title in franchise history.

"We've got to win," Weiss said. "We know what's at stake. The key is not to think about it, just go through your normal routine that you usually do. Saying that, we've got to have a little extra bite tonight, for sure. We don't want to keep this thing going. We want to finish it off tonight, and we're playing a good hockey club, so we'll have our hands full."

Weiss actually got an early birthday present Monday night from Steven Stamkos, a fellow Ontario native with whom he often trains in the summer.

It was Stamkos' two late goals, including the game-winner with 1:03 left in regulation, that gave Tampa Bay a 4-2 victory over Washington on Monday night and put the Panthers on the brink of clinching the division title.

"Stammer came through for us at the end," Weiss said. "Gave Stammer a little text there, told him I love him, there at the end of the game. It was big for us, obviously.

"I'm rooting for him to get 60 [goals] obviously. That was a big goal for him and for us, so I thought I'd just give him a little text."

With Stamkos having done his part, Weiss and his teammates now have the chance to make it a truly memorable birthday.

"It's got the makings to be a good day," Weiss said. "We'll put all that aside for now and just focus on going through our routine and our process and playing hard for 60 minutes, and see what happens."
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Posted On Tuesday, 04.03.2012 / 1:42 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Playoffs, division title within Panthers' grasp Tuesday

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers are doing their best to remain focused, but they're also well aware what's at stake Tuesday night.

With a victory over the Winnipeg Jets at the BankAtlantic Center, the Panthers not only will secure the organization's first playoff berth since 2000, they also will clinch the first division title in franchise history.

"We're excited as a group," veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "We've worked all year for games like this. We obviously know the importance of it, what it means to this group of guys, this franchise."

The Panthers can extend their lead over Washington in the Southeast Division to five points with a victory Tuesday, and the Capitals have only two games left -- including one Thursday at home against Florida.

When they picked up a point in a 2-1 shootout loss at Detroit on Sunday, the Panthers already knew they could clinch a playoff spot Tuesday. But Washington's 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday night, when Steve Stamkos scored the game-winner with 1:03 left in regulation, set up the division-clinching scenario.

Coach Kevin Dineen said he didn't watch the game, instead waiting for the start of the NCAA Tournament championship game between Kentucky and Kansas. Dineen did say he was made aware of the score by family members.

All Panthers players interviewed after the morning skate Tuesday, on the other hand, saw Stamkos' late-game heroics.

"I kind of let out a good jump on the couch when he scored with around a minute left," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We want to get in and work hard by doing what we need to do. But definitely you're always scoreboard-watching at this time of the season. But now we need to take care of our business."

The Panthers, whose playoff drought is the longest in NHL history, have held first place in the Southeast for 123 days this season, including the last 38.

They've managed to hold off Washington despite winning only once in their last seven games, largely because of their ability to pick up points most outings.

But after going 1-2-4 during that stretch, Florida needs a victory Tuesday to make the playoffs a reality.

"It's an exciting time for us, for sure," Dineen said. "We're confident, but also we understand there's still lots of hockey to be played in this season. It's quiet confidence with the understanding that, as always, work has to come before any kind of carrots. Certainly our players are ready to go in and put in a solid effort tonight."

In Winnipeg, the Panthers will be facing a team that saw its playoff hopes disappear in its last game.

But the Panthers aren't about to take the Jets lightly. Florida has won three of the first five meetings, but was shut out 7-0 the last time it faced the Jets, March 1 at Winnipeg.

After Tuesday, the Panthers have games remaining -- at Washington on Thursday, and at home against Carolina on Saturday. But they want those two points right away.

"You want to take anything the first opportunity you get," Campbell said. "We know what our schedule is like. It's been grueling over the last couple of weeks. It's a good challenge. If we play like we played in Detroit, we're going to have a lot of success.

"We're just trying to lock up a playoff spot here, and it's a great opportunity tonight. We've got a great challenge with Winnipeg and being at home is pretty exciting."

Dineen has spoken several times in recent weeks of being happy his team was relevant late in the season. With a victory Tuesday night, the Panthers will be relevant in the postseason.

"Obviously, there's a lot of clarity that we can do things here at home," Dineen said. "There's still some work to do, and we need to go out and take care of our business. It's right there in front of us."


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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:43 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Sabres add new twist to "dad's trip" - moms

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres’ traveling party to Florida for a two-game swing against the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning was a little larger than usual because it’s the team’s annual parent trip.

But there’s a new twist this year: Instead of players being limited to inviting their father to come along, this year they were given the option of inviting their mother.

The reason was simple, said Coach Lindy Ruff.

“Well, we had too many upset mothers who didn’t get to go in the past,” Ruff said with a smile. “So we had to level the playing field eventually. If you keep doing it the same, it loses some of the spark. We’ve thought about bringing a brother, bringing maybe your best friend along, we’ve thought about different things.

“There’s different ways you can go. If you had a childhood friend you grew up and you were able to share that experience with him, chance of a lifetime. I know that the mothers are really excited. It was a great option for guys.”

Captain Jason Pominville brought along his father, but that was only after his mother changed her mind after first saying she wanted to travel south.

“It’s fun,” Pominville said. “It’s a great experience for him. I know they’ll have a lot of activities and they’ll be all over the place throughout the course of the day. It’s just fun to be able to have him with us and see what we basically do every day and our traveling and the way we’re treated in every city. It’s a pretty unique opportunity for all the dads or the moms that are here.”

Along with mothers and fathers, Tyler Myers brought along his grandmother. She won’t get to see him play, however, as he will serve the second game of his three-game suspension Saturday night against the Panthers and the third Monday night against the Lightning.

The practice of bringing parents on trips is spread throughout the NHL, although it’s usually done early in the season and not in March when teams are involved in playoff races.

“It’s a little bit more intense,” Ruff admitted, “but when we looked at it, the ideal time and how we wanted to work it, if you look at what they’re doing on game days, they’re staying busy, it really is no 
big hassle.”

Ruff said having mothers and fathers around actually might bring out the best in his players.

“I think some of the moms would be harder on them than I am,” he said. “It’s a good thing because you want to perform. You’ve got one of your parents there and you don’t’ want to let them down at the same time. It cuts both ways.”

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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:30 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers try again for elusive fourth straight win

SUNRISE, Fla. — This is where it has gotten tricky for the Florida Panthers.

For the fifth time this season, they’re riding a three-game winning streak as heading into Saturday night’s contest against the Buffalo Sabres at the BankAtlantic Center.

But they’re still looking for that first four-game winning streak. In fact, the Panthers haven’t won four in a row since March of 2008 when they set a franchise record by reeling off seven consecutive victories.

That’s four years without a four-game winning streak.

“Let’s try to have tonight be the night to break that whole image of the Florida Panthers win streak,” said wing Kris Versteeg, who will be back in the lineup after missing the last nine games with a lower-body injury.

The Sabres already stopped one Florida three-game winning streak this season with a 2-1 overtime decision at Buffalo on Dec. 9.

Florida had another three-game streak end with an overtime loss, this time at Tampa Bay on Nov. 25.

But the last two three-game streaks ended with a thud, with a 6-2 home loss to Ottawa on Feb. 15 and with a 7-0 rout at Winnipeg on March 1.

The Panthers got their current streak with home victories over Carolina (2-0), Toronto (5-2) and Boston (6-2).

A victory over Buffalo would conclude a perfect 4-0 homestand. A victory in regulation would give Florida its first four-game streak of regulation victories since all the way back in February of 2001 — two of the victories in the March 2008 came in overtime.

More importantly, though, a victory over Buffalo would get the Panthers closer to a playoff berth, something they haven’t done since 2000.

“We look at this as a key stretch and we’re still right in the middle of it,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “We have to respect our opponent, know that we have a team that’s coming in that’s playing a good stretch of hockey right now and they are surging. It has great implications for us as well as them. It will make for a very exciting game, I think.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:09 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Sekera back for Buffalo's playoff push

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres’ playoff push will get a boost Saturday night when defenseman Andrej Sekera returns to the lineup against the Florida Panthers.

Sekera missed the last five games after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

“I’m back healthy again and I’m ready to go,” Sekara said after Buffalo’s morning skate. “Every single time you come back from an injury or whatever, you are excited and you want to win some hockey games here with the guys. That’s our focus.”

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said Sekera was playing at a high level before he was sidelined.

“Before he got sick, he might have been our top defenseman,” Ruff said. “He was playing against all the top lines. You look at his ability to hang on to the puck and get up ice and defend against the top personnel, I mean, his skating for a defenseman is at an elite level.”

Sekera last played March 5 at Winnipeg. He said he experienced flu-like symptoms, but went for further testing after three days when he wasn’t getting any better.

“I figured it might be something different because I had the bug before but it wasn’t that bad,” Sekera said. “So I called the doctor and did some more tests and they said I had pneumonia. They said it was in the early stage of it and it was in only one of my lungs so far, so I got my antibiotics and as long as the fever is not coming back, I feel pretty good.”

The sixth-year NHL veteran said he wasn’t concerned about stamina in his return to action.

“If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t be playing,” said Sekera, who will replace Brayden McNabb in the lineup. “I feel like I’m ready and I’m playing.”

While Sekera will be back, forward Nathan Gerbe will miss a second consecutive game because of an upper-body injury. Ruff said Gerbe, who was injured in a 3-2 overtime victory Monday over Montreal, is day-to-day.

Buffalo also will be without defenseman Tyler Myers, who will be serving the second game of a three-game suspension for boarding Montreal forward Scott Gomez on Monday night.

Here is the Sabres’ projected lineup for Saturday:

Marcus Foligno - Tyler Ennis - Drew Stafford
Corey Tropp - Derek Roy - Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek - Cody Hodgson - Ville Leino
Cody McCormick - Brad Boyes - Patrick Kaleta

Christian Ehrhoff - Alexander Sulzer
Robyn Regehr - Andrej Sekera
Jordan Leopold - Mike Weber

Ryan Miller
Jhonas Enroth
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:44 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Versteeg, Kulikov return for Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — After coach Kevin Dineen said all week that Kris Versteeg and Dmitry Kulikov were close to returning to action, the next step finally has come and both players will be in the lineup when   the Florida Panthers face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.

Versteeg missed the last nine games because of a lower-body injury. He was the team’s leading scorer with 49 points when he went out, but has since dropped to third behind Tomas Fleischmann (51) and Stephen Weiss (50).

The three have played on the same line for most of the season, but Versteeg is expected to skate Saturday night alongside Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias.

“I want to be a help to the team in any way I can,” said Versteeg, who last played during the Panthers’ 4-2 victory over Montreal on Feb. 26. “I guess a couple of weeks ago we had a little bit of a rough run, but the last three games the guys have been clicking. You don’t want to come in and do too much to the chemistry, but you do want to come in and help.”

As for Kulikov, he’ll return after missing 23 games after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 24.

Kulikov figures to be paired again with veteran Mike Weaver.

“It’s been a long time,” Kulikov said. “I’ve been looking forward to this night. I’ve been looking forward to coming back and helping out the team. Obviously, guys are doing good right now. I just want to get into the rhythm and don’t mess up the thing.”

After undergoing surgery, Kulikov said the knee had been bothering to some degree for about five years. But he says he’s 100 percent now.

“When you’re injured, you’re working even harder than the guys that are playing,” Kulikov said. “That’s what they prepare you for. It’s hard, but that needs to be done, those workouts and preparation for the games. I feel fresh right now. I feel like I have lots of energy.

“You don’t go into the game and get used to the game. You don’t have time for that. You just have to go out there and pick up where you left off or even better. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll see how it 
goes.”

The return of Versteeg and Kulikov made for some tough lineup decisions for Dineen, whose team is riding a three-game winning streak.

“A guy like Marco Sturm that I felt played the best game I’ve seen him play in a Panthers uniform (Thursday against Boston) is making those decisions extremely tough,” Dineen said. “When you get a coveted spot in this lineup, your job is to make sure that the coaches have a tough decision every day in how they’re putting their lineup together every day.

“That’s exactly what you want. You want enthusiasm and some kind of production ... it may not be on the score sheet, but there has to be a positive effect for every player in the lineup for us to be successful. That’s how our sales job right now.”

It is Sturm’s spot on the Matthias line that Versteeg will take against Buffalo, but Sturm is expected to be in the lineup anyway skating with John Madden and Jerred Smithson.

Here is the Panthers’ projected lineup for Saturday night against Buffalo.

PANTHERS

Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Wojtek Wolski
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Kris Versteeg
Marco Sturm - John Madden - Jerred Smithson

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
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Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 3:02 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers see returns of Versteeg, Kulikov near

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kris Versteeg and Dmitry Kulikov stayed on the ice after the morning skate Thursday and they'll once again be out of the lineup when the Florida Panthers face Boston Thursday night.

But their long-awaited return appears imminent. In fact, it very well might come as early as Saturday when the Panthers wrap up a four-game homestand against the Buffalo Sabres.

"Getting closer, that's the good part," said Kulikov, who will miss his 23rd game since undergoing knee surgery. "I'm practicing with the team. So excited to be out there with the guys. Just waiting for my comeback."

Versteeg, for his part, will miss his ninth consecutive game with a lower-body injury.

Despite not having played since Feb. 26, Versteeg is tied with Tomas Fleischmann for the team lead in goals (22) and points (49).

Kulikov, meanwhile, appeared on his way to a breakout season in his third year in the NHL. Despite having played only 42 games, the 2009 first-round pick is only two points shy of his career high of 26.

"Kuli was so impressive at the beginning of the year," coach Kevin Dineen said. "For a young player, he shows a great deal of maturity and stability. He's been sorely missed. We're excited about his imminent return."

The return of Versteeg and Kulikov no doubt will provide a major boost for a Florida team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

Even with those two, the Panthers won't be completely healthy, as forwards Matt Bradley and Jack Skille are both likely out for the season with upper-body injuries.

But Versteeeg and Kulikov are two important pieces for the Panthers, and Dineen will find himself with some tough lineup decisions going forward.

"It's hard decisions," Dineen said, "and that's a good reflection on what Dale Tallon has done here to give us the depth to be healthy and to have options in the playoff run. And that's what we’re looking for."
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Quote of the Day

I might have blacked out. I was pretty pumped.

— New Jersey Devils rookie goalie Keith Kinkaid on his first NHL win Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning