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Lightning look to end skid against rival Panthers

by Brian Hunter

PANTHERS (24-34-7) at LIGHTNING (34-24-7)


Last 10: Florida 3-7-0; Tampa Bay 2-6-2

Season series: This is the fourth and final game between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay is shooting for a season sweep, having outscored Florida 17-6. Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has four goals and six points in the series, despite missing the most recent game Dec. 23 while rehabbing from a broken leg.

Big story: The Lightning, their winless streak now at five games (0-3-2) and their grasp on a wild-card spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs down to a four-point lead over the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, chase an important two points against their Sunshine State neighbors.

Team Scope:

Panthers: Florida forward Brandon Pirri, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the NHL Trade Deadline for two draft picks, has seen his ice time increase since his arrival. He's finished with five shots in two of his past three games and scored his first goal with the Panthers in a 3-1 loss Tuesday to the Phoenix Coyotes.

It's players like Pirri, 22, who bear watching over these final 17 games for Florida as they attempt to solidify NHL jobs for next season. Coach Peter Horachek, who is stating his case for a permanent position, continued to stress the fundamentals running practice Wednesday.

"Hockey is one of the greatest sports because it's not black and white, it's gray," Horachek said. "You always have to teach and learn."

Lightning: This turn in the wrong direction started for Tampa Bay when it blew a lead and allowed four third-period goals to the Colorado Avalanche on March 2. Two nights later, the Lightning got up 2-0 on the St. Louis Blues but gave up the next four. They let another 2-0 lead slip against the Boston Bruins, and the Phoenix Coyotes rallied from a goal down in the third Monday. The past two losses came in shootouts, so the Lightning did secure single points, but finding a way to hold a lead has become a focus.

"I feel like some parts we're trying too hard and not playing relaxed," forward Valtteri Filppula said in the Tampa Bay Times. "When we're up 2-1, and they get a goal, and we're kind of, I don't want to say panic, but we lose our game even though we should play the same way. You get those stretches in a season when things aren't going your way, and hopefully we can get out of this mess soon."

Who's hot: Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad has assists in three consecutive games. … Lightning forward Tyler Johnson has three goals and one assist during a four-game point streak. Two of the goals came shorthanded, giving him four on the season to tie with Bruins forward Brad Marchand for the NHL lead. Forward Ondrej Palat has three goals and two assists in the past two games.

Injury report: Florida forward Sean Bergenheim (lower body) left the game Tuesday and won't be in the lineup. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (knee) is out two weeks. Forward Jesse Winchester (lower body) is out indefinitely. Forwards Tomas Kopecky (concussion) and Aleksander Barkov (knee) are on injured reserve. … Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo (lower body) and Radko Gudas (leg) both skated Thursday and said they are ready to go. Salo left the game Monday in the first period, while Gudas has missed the past four games.

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