PANTHERS (12-7-4) at HURRICANES (8-13-4)
TV: FS-F, FS-CR (HD)
Last 10: Florida 6-3-1; Carolina 3-6-1.
Season Series: This is the first of six season meetings between the Southeast Division rivals. Carolina won the season series 4-2 in 2010-11, including the final meeting of the season, a 2-1 decision on March 1.
Big Story: Carolina will introduce new coach Kirk Muller against Florida. The struggling 'Canes hope Muller – brought in from the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals to replace the outgoing Paul Maurice – brings with him a winning touch to the RBC Center. Carolina is 14th in the Eastern Conference with just 20 points from 25 games, and the road gets no easier against the Panthers, who still lead the division with 28 points despite being swept by Tampa Bay in a home-and-home series this weekend.
Panthers: Call it a holiday hangover. After winning three in a row and surging to the top of the Southeast, a home-and-home sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay brought Florida back to reality. The Panthers' well-oiled offense scored just two goals over two games and went just 1-for-10 on the man advantage. After losing in overtime at the BankAtlantic Center on Friday, the Panthers were torn apart in a 5-1 drubbing Sunday in Tampa Bay.
"We got outplayed and the score shows how the game played out," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said of the loss. "Goaltending wasn't an issue, it was overall defensive play and a real lack of will. We need to get back to the way we've been successful, and we didn't do that for the last four or five periods."
Hurricanes: According to numerous reports, last Wednesday's 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal sealed Maurice's fate. Carolina followed it up with a 3-1 loss at home to Winnipeg on Friday before Sunday's 4-3 loss at Ottawa. The Hurricanes have spent most of the season mired in the depths of the Eastern Conference, and won just four times in 14 games in November, so it is clear Maurice was far from Carolina's only problem. With a fourth of the season gone, team leaders on both offense (Eric Staal, 5 goals, 6 assists, minus-17) and defense (Cam Ward is 8-10-3 with a 3.10 goals-against average) are struggling mightily.
One of the many issues plaguing the Hurricanes is special teams. In his five seasons as an assistant with Montreal, Muller focused on such. The 'Canes could use his help, as their 21st-ranked penalty kill (80.2 percent) is matched only by their conversion rate (29th – 12.2 percent).
Who's Hot: Tomas Fleischmann, the left side of a menacing Panther top line featuring Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, scored the lone goal in the OT loss Friday, and has six points in his last five games.
Injury Report: Goalie Scott Clemmensen (groin) is expected to be available for Thursday's game, while center Marcel Goc (head) is questionable. Mikail Samuelsson (groin), Scottie Upshall (upper body) and Matt Bradley (upper body) are all on injured reserve. … Defenseman Jay Harrison is questionable for Thursday's game with an upper body injury.
Stat Pack: While off to a slow start offensively, Staal -- Carolina's captain -- is rock-bottom among eligible players (726th) with his minus-17 rating. Staal has finished positive only four times this year, and all were games in which Carolina came away with points (three wins, one shootout loss).
Puck Drop: "Kirk is a proven leader and motivator, and he has strong communication skills. He was a captain and a Stanley Cup winner as a player, and did excellent work as a coach with the Canadiens and the Admirals. We feel confident that he is the right man to lead our team now and in the future." – Carolina President and General Manager Jim Rutherford on Kirk Muller's hiring