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Big points on the line as Predators visit Panthers

by Brian Hunter
PREDATORS (43-27-6) at PANTHERS (30-33-11)

Last 10:
Nashville 7-2-1; Florida 4-5-1

Season series:
Second and final meeting of the regular season between inter-conference opponents. J.P. Dumont had the go-ahead goal in the third period and Dan Hamhuis contributed a goal and an assist as the Predators claimed a 3-1 win in Nashville on Nov. 28. Dan Ellis stopped 18 shots and earned an assist on Joel Ward's empty-net goal.

Big story: There's a logjam right now for the final four Western Conference playoff spots, with a grand total of three points separating Nashville, Detroit, Los Angeles and Colorado. The Predators hold down fifth at the start of play Monday, but they haven't clinched yet so every available point remains valuable.

Florida has eight games remaining and could finish with as many as 87 points if it won out. At the moment, Boston and Philadelphia are tied for the final two spots in the East with 80 points, so even running the table might not be enough for the Panthers to end an eight-season playoff drought.

Team Scope:

In an epic struggle with Central Division rival Detroit on Saturday, the teams battled scoreless through 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime, then needed an 11-round shootout to finally decide a winner. Nashville answered Todd Bertuzzi's goal in the fifth round with a Steve Sullivan tally, but the Predators had no answer for Niklas Kronwall's score and suffered a 1-0 defeat. The point they picked up was a valuable one, however, allowing them to retain sole possession of fifth.

"At that point, it is like flipping a coin," said goalie Pekka Rinne, who was credited with his seventh shutout of the season. "Obviously, I was mad right afterward, but it was a solid effort and we picked up one point. I'm sure this will turn out to be a big point."

It was a painful one-goal loss for Florida in Ottawa on Saturday, as the Senators got three straight scores after Stephen Weiss put the Panthers on the board first in the second period. Steven Reinprecht's power-play goal with 6:46 remaining provided hope but the Panthers lost 3-2 at a time when they couldn't afford to come away empty.

"We're not getting anything," a disappointed coach Peter DeBoer said. "Whether it's a goalie pitching a shutout or a defenseman getting on the board or a forward scoring two or three, we're not finding a difference maker on any given night."

Who's hot:
Rinne is 9-2-1 in his last 12 starts with four shutouts. He is now tied with Martin Brodeur, Craig Anderson and Tomas Vokoun, one behind Ilya Bryzgalov for the League lead.

Injury report:
Nashville captain Jason Arnott (head) is day-to-day. Ward has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury. Denis Grebeshkov is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. … David Booth will miss the rest of the season for Florida after suffering his second concussion in five months. Gregory Campbell is sidelined with a broken foot.

Stat pack: Rinne is 3-0-0 with a 1.33 goals-against average on the road since the Olympic break, and 1-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA in two career starts against the Panthers. … Vokoun, who began his career with the Predators, has split his two career decisions against them. He stopped all 27 shots he faced in a 3-0 win on Dec. 23, 2008.

Puck drop:
Nashville will get another shot at Detroit this coming Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, the conclusion of a busy week ahead. After visiting Florida, the Predators return home to finish off a back-to-back with Los Angeles on the schedule Tuesday. St. Louis then comes to town Thursday.

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