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Panthers' MacKenzie, Gudbranson return to face Devils

Florida fighting for first place in Atlantic; New Jersey's playoff hopes slim

by Alain Poupart / NHL.com Correspondent

DEVILS (37-32-8) at PANTHERS (42-25-9)

TV: 7:30 p.m. ET; MSG+ 2, FS-F, NHL.TV

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers will have several lineup changes when they face the New Jersey Devils at BB&T Center on Thursday.

Center Derek MacKenzie and defenseman Erik Gudbranson are each expected be back after missing two weeks with foot injuries; goalie Al Montoya will start; center Rocco Grimaldi will skate on the third line after being recalled from Portland of the American Hockey League; and Quinton Howden and Shawn Thornton will replace Garrett Wilson and Logan Shaw as the fourth-line wings.

Perhaps the most significant changes will be the returns of MacKenzie and Gudbranson, each key members of the Panthers' penalty-killing unit. Florida allowed three power-play goals in a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.

"He's a big, important part of our defensive corps," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said of Gudbranson. "He's a big, strong guy and he's played really well this year."

As expected, Nick Bjugstad will replace injured center Vincent Trocheck on the line with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith.

Trocheck is expected to miss the rest of the regular season after sustaining a foot injury while blocking a shot against Toronto.

"It's a tough loss with [Trocheck]," Bjugstad said. "He's been a big part of our team. It's going to be tough shoes to fill. I've just got to work hard and play hard with these guys. They're skilled players, so I have no excuse really."

Grimaldi will take Bjugstad's place alongside veterans Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell.

The Panthers are tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Atlantic Division with 93 points, although the Lightning hold the tiebreaker advantage because of their higher number of regulation/overtime wins (41-35). Each team has six games remaining.

The Devils' playoff hopes are alive but slim. They trail the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference by seven points. New Jersey has five games left and Philadelphia six.

The Devils will have one change from the lineup they used in their 2-1 victory against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. Forward Tyler Kennedy will return after missing four games because of a lower-body injury.

Goalie Cory Schneider was activated from injured reserve Wednesday and took part in the morning skate, but Keith Kinkaid again will start. Coach John Hynes said conditioning is the only issue now for Schneider, who sprained his knee March 4 against the Dallas Stars.

Schneider will likely start against Tampa Bay on Saturday.

"Personally it's difficult to not be there to help your team, but we're in good hands," Schneider said. "They've made it clear that they don't want me rushing back too soon or they don't want to put me in a spot where it's not going to be a good situation for me, but at the same time I think the competitor in me wants to get back out there. Tonight will be a good step just to be with the team and see a game in the equipment and not in a suit."

Kinkaid made 39 saves against Boston in his first start since a stretch of three games where he allowed 13 goals on 75 shots (.827 save percentage) that led New Jersey to go with AHL call-up Scott Wedgewood for four consecutive games.

"He came in and had a good game," Hynes said. "It wasn't that we had lost confidence in him. We just needed to help him get his game back. It wasn't like we didn't trust him anymore. He wasn't playing well because there were certain things in his game that needed to be fixed. He fixed those and he had a good game, and now we'd like to be able to see him capitalize again on another chance to play tonight."

The Devils and Panthers split two games at Prudential Center in a span of 12 days in December. Schneider made 34 saves and forward Adam Henrique had a goal and two assists in a 4-2 Devils win Dec. 6. Forward Brandon Pirri, who since has been traded to the Anaheim Ducks, had a goal and two assists in a 5-1 Panthers win Dec. 17.

Here are the projected lineups:

DEVILS

Reid Boucher - Travis Zajac - Kyle Palmieri

Joseph Blandisi - Adam Henrique - Devante Smith-Pelly

Sergey Kalinin - Blake Pietila - Mike Sislo

Bobby Farnham - Stephen Gionta - Tyler Kennedy

Adam Larsson - Andy Greene

John Moore - Damon Severson

Seth Helgeson - David Warsofsky

Keith Kinkaid

Cory Schneider

Injured: Michael Cammalleri (upper body), Patrik Elias (knee), Jacob Josefson (upper body), Jon Merrill (upper body), David Schlemko (upper body), Jiri Tlusty (upper body), Jordin Tootoo (upper body)

Scratched: Vojtech Mozik

PANTHERS

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr

Jussi Jokinen - Nick Bjugstad - Reilly Smith

Jiri Hudler - Rocco Grimaldi - Teddy Purcell

Quinton Howden - Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton

Brian Campbell - Aaron Ekblad

Dmitry Kulikov - Erik Gudbranson

Jakub Kindl - Steven Kampfer

Al Montoya

Roberto Luongo

Injured: Vincent Trocheck (foot), Dave Bolland (lower body), Willie Mitchell (concussion)

Scratched: Garrett Wilson, Logan Shaw, Greg McKegg, Alex Petrovic

Status report: Josefson and Schlemko, who will miss their 12th and seventh game, respectively, took part in the morning skate and Hynes said there was a good chance they would play Saturday against Tampa Bay. … Howden was a healthy scratch the past seven games. … Montoya, who has a lower goals-against average and a higher save percentage than Roberto Luongo, will be making his fifth start since Feb. 18. "[Montoya] has been outstanding for us this year," Gallant said. "His numbers are really good and he's played great hockey for us. You don't leave here saying, well, I hope (Montoya) has a good game tonight because you're confident in (Montoya). You know he's going to do the job for you."

Who's hot: Zajac had two goals and an assist in his past two games. … Huberdeau has a three-game goal streak and is two points shy of his NHL career high of 54 points set last season. … Barkov has four assists in his past three games.

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