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Lightning, Panthers end season with home-and-home

by Matthew Mankiewich
PANTHERS (32-36-12) at LIGHTNING (32-36-12)

Last 10 -- Florida 4-5-1; Tampa Bay 4-6-0

Season series -- This final home-and-home will be it for both teams, neither of which will make the playoffs. They go in with identical records, tied for 13th in the Eastern Conference, though the Panthers have had the edge head-to-head, outscoring the Bolts 13-6 in three games following an initial 3-2 Tampa Bay win in October.

Big story --
It's down to pride and draft position right now and both teams have shown a willingness to play, the Panthers taking down the Devils and the Lightning sticking it to the Senators, trying to throw as many wrenches into the playoff seedings as they can. It's also an opportunity for individual goals to be reached, most notably Steven Stamkos' challenge for the NHL lead in goals and the resulting Maurice Richard Trophy.

Team scope:

Panthers --
The Cats' last chance to influence the playoffs was a productive one. Scott Clemmensen answered the call when Tomas Vokoun's back started acting up Wednesday and stuck it to his old team for the second time this season, stopping 42 shots in a 3-2 win on Thursday. That enabled the Penguins to draw even with the Devils for first place in the Atlantic Division.

"I'm not worried about them, they'll be fine," Clemmensen said. "New Jersey has a great team over there. They have all the components to make a good run at the Stanley Cup."

"We only have a couple games left and we want to finish strong," said Nathan Horton, who helped the cause with a goal. "It's tough playing these games, but that's what we're paid to do. We're trying, trying to finish the season off right. Clemmensen played there and played great tonight. We wouldn't have won without him tonight."

Lightning -- A disappointing season overall was made less so by the future of the franchise, Stamkos. Win or lose, he's been scoring steadily and giving fans something to watch in the final weekend. He's at 48 goals for the season thanks to his League-leading 22nd power-play tally of the year against the Senators, right there with Alex Ovechkin and one behind Sidney Crosby.

"That's special to be up there with an Ovechkin and a Crosby," Stamkos told the Tampa Tribune on Wednesday. "I've kind of been flying under the radar a little and that's the way I'd have it. Obviously, they are two of the premier players in the League. Hard work by my linemates and our coaches have helped me get to where I am and things have gone well this year personally."

It was defenseman Andrej Meszaros, though, who really turned in a stand-up performance on Thursday. He took a puck to the right side of his throat from an Erik Karlsson shot, but got back up under his own power, returned to the game in the third period and finished it out.

Who's hot --
Stamkos has three goals and two assists in his last four games. Teddy Purcell has a pair of goals in his last two games, a third of his total season output. Horton has three points in his last two games and needs one more goal to nail down his fifth straight season with 20 or more.

Injury report --
Panthers winger Cory Stillman (back) missed his second straight game Thursday and is questionable for Saturday. He has four goals and two assists in the Cats' three-game winning streak against his former team.

Stat pack --
Florida's failure to make the playoffs this year extends the NHL's longest active playoff drought, dating back to 1999-2000. The Lightning have only been out of the playoffs for three straight seasons but have achieved their highest point total since their last appearance. The Panthers have won 15 of 20 games against the Lightning since 2003-04.

Puck drop --
About all that's left to play for is draft position and a Richard Trophy for Stamkos. Still, Rick Tocchet and Pete DeBoer have their teams playing hard to the end.

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