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Lightning-Panthers Preview @NHLdotcom

If the Florida Panthers are going to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, they'll likely need to capitalize on a very home-heavy schedule over the remaining month.

The Panthers begin that season-ending stretch Saturday when they host the last-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

Florida (34-25-9) is ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the seventh-place tie between the New York Rangers and Carolina but just five back of fourth-place Philadelphia.

The Panthers, who haven't made the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, will try to take advantage of playing nine of their remaining 14 games at BankAtlantic Center, where they are 18-9-5.

Florida is hoping the start of a four-game homestand can help it rebound from consecutive road losses. The Panthers lost 3-1 to Buffalo on Thursday, two days after falling 4-3 in a shootout to Pittsburgh.

"It's crucial points, especially against a team like Buffalo," right wing Radek Dvorak said of the loss to the Sabres, who are two points behind Florida. "Every time you lose a game like this, it's bad for us."

Stephen Weiss, who leads Florida with a career high-tying 48 points, has gone four games without one and the Panthers have lost three of them. Prior to that stretch, the 25-year-old center had six points in two games - both wins.

Weiss has four points in five games against the Lightning (22-32-14) this season.

Florida has already taken the season series with Tampa Bay, going 3-1-1 after winning 4-3 in the last meeting on the road Jan. 17. The Panthers have also dominated the Lightning at home, posting a 13-3-1 mark in the last 17. However, they lost 4-3 in a shootout there Dec. 26.

The Lightning, last in the Southeast Division, are looking to win consecutive games for the first time since a three-game run from Jan. 19-27. They snapped a four-game slide Thursday by beating Toronto 4-1 on the road.

"It's a lot easier to play with a lead," Martin St. Louis told the Lightning's official Web site.

St. Louis, who netted the eventual game-winner late in the second period, has been hot of late. The veteran right wing, who leads the club with 67 points, has five goals and seven assists in the last nine games.

St. Louis has a goal and five assists in the last two games against Florida - both at home. He's been held without a point in the last three road meetings.

Steven Stamkos has been getting more involved offensively, registering four goals and four assists in the past eight games. The 19-year-old center, who was drafted first overall in June, has struggled through most of the season, totaling 14 goals and 33 points. He found the back of the net against the Panthers in a 6-4 win Dec. 27.

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