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Devils aim to stay hot vs. struggling Panthers

by David Kalan

DEVILS (46-26-7) at PANTHERS (31-36-12)

Last 10 -- New Jersey 4-2-4; Florida 3-6-1.

Season series -- New Jersey leads the season series, 2-1-0, with the Devils' most recent win a 2-0 shutout over the Panthers on Jan. 20 at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Big story -- With the season winding towards its final days, the Devils will look to take two points from the Panthers in hopes of maintaining, and possibly clinching, first place in the Atlantic Division and second place in the Eastern Conference...

Team Scope:

Devils -- With goaltender Martin Brodeur coming off his 600th win and a possible fourth division title in the last five years in the offing, these are heady days for New Jersey, but the biggest story surrounding the team over the last few days may be the discontent of captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Coach Jacques Lemaire made Langenbrunner a healthy scratch for the team's Saturday night win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh because he felt he needed a day off. After days of silence with the media, Langenbrunner admitted Wednesday that he had intended on playing the full 82-game schedule, and was miffed at the unexpected rest.

Any opponents expecting the Devils to be thrown off by some locker room turmoil are in for a disappointment, however. New Jersey has won two straight, with Brodeur rounding into his postseason form at the best possible time. The future Hall-of-Famer is taking a 125:26 shutout streak into Florida, and while another clean sheet is a tall order, a third straight win, combined with a regulation loss by Pittsburgh against the Islanders, would be enough to give the tie-breaker holding Devils the Atlantic Division crown.

Panthers -- While New Jersey has already clinched its 13th consecutive trip to the postseason, Florida finds itself on the other end of the spectrum. The Panthers are mired in the NHL's longest playoff drought, having not made an appearance since 2000. The nine consecutive non-playoff seasons have tied an NHL record. While Florida was flirting with a playoff berth a season ago, this has been a rough season full of with injuries, particular two concussions for David Booth, that have left the Panthers instead flirting with the Eastern Conference cellar.

The Panthers are badly in need of a breakout performance offensively -- they haven't scored more than two goals in seven games -- but the back end has been an issue as well. Tomas Vokoun is usually one of the more dependable netminders in the League, but he has lost his last seven starts while posting a 3.51 goals-against average during that stretch. Vokoun's recent slump could mean that former Devil Scott Clemmensen could get the start against his ex-mates for the second time this year. That could be good news for Florida. Clemmensen, who won 25 games in place of an injured Brodeur last season, is 3-1-1 in his last five starts and was in net on Dec. 11, when the Panthers got their lone win this season against the Devils.

Who's hot -- Ilya Kovalchuk was held without a point Tuesday as he faced a smattering of boos in his return to Atlanta, but still has 11 points in his last eight games. ... Florida's Keith Ballard may have attracted attention for accidentally knocking a puck in his own net Tuesday night, but the defenseman has actually been a solid producer of late with three goals in his last five games.

Injury report -- Florida is already without Booth (concussion) for the remainder of the season, and Cory Stillman (back) is also questionable for Thursday against New Jersey. Gregory Campbell (broken foot) is expected to play. New Jersey should have a full lineup with the exception of Andrew Peters, who has been out since late March with an eye injury.

Stat pack -- Brodeur's shutout against Atlanta was the 110th of his career, but it has actually been 13 years since he's blanked three teams in a row. The last time Brodeur turned a shutout hat trick was on April 4, 1997. Florida, a six-time victim and one of the lowest scoring teams in the League, might be a good candidate for him to match the feat against.

Puck drop -- It's no secret that New Jersey has more at stake than Florida, but with many Panthers fighting for roster spots next season, the team is unlikely to roll over. Still, a division title and possible second seed in the East hang in the balance for the Devils. With New Jersey playing well -- and a chance to guarantee avoiding Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals until the conference finals -- expect the Devils to come out strong for their final road game of the season.

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