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Panthers and Hurricanes begin home-and-home series

by Mike Battaglino

PANTHERS (6-9-5) at HURRICANES (10-8-1)

TV: FS-Florida, FS-Carolinas

Last 10: Florida 2-4-4; Carolina 5-4-1

Season series: This is the second of four meetings, with the third Sunday at Florida. The Panthers won 5-1 in the season opener, knocking Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward from the game in the first period. Florida has won six of the past seven.

Big story: Fourth-place Florida and first-place Carolina are separated by four points (21-17) in the Southeast Division, which is unlikely to qualify more than two teams for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each team defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins this week and has several division games coming up.

Team Scope:

Panthers: This home-and-home set is the first of five in a row, and six of seven, for Florida against a division opponent.

"We need points," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We go into the biggest weekend of the season. It's Carolina back-to-back, divisional games. We need to come out with hopefully a couple of wins."

A 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday was the fifth extra-time loss for the Panthers in February; they won one game that went past regulation.

"I think you probably feel like your fans do ... there were a few games over last week that we ended up with one point and you just leave the rink with a little bad taste in your mouth," coach Kevin Dineen said. "… At the end of it, we feel if we play that way and keep moving in that direction, that's a sign that we're moving in the right direction."

Jose Theodore is 6-1-0 with a 1.67 goals-against in his past seven games against Carolina, but he's 0-2-2 with a 4.19 GAA in his past five starts.

Hurricanes: For Carolina, it's the first two of 10 games against a division opponent through April 4. Carolina is tied for first with the Winnipeg Jets (with a game in hand) despite going 0-5-0 within the division and being outscored 21-7.

"It's a big month for us," forward Jeff Skinner said. "Obviously those divisional games are huge. I think especially in the shortened season, and only playing in the Eastern Conference, those games mean that much more. It's going to be a big month for us and I think everyone's pretty excited for it."

Eight of the Hurricanes' next 12 games will be played at PNC Arena, where they are 4-4-0.

"It's always cool playing at home," Skinner said. "We've got a loud crowd. It's always fun to play in front of them and we've got a bunch of home games coming up; it's pretty exciting."

Carolina handled Pittsburgh 4-1 on Thursday after the Panthers defeated the Penguins 6-4 on Tuesday.

"We've just got to remember how we played and the little things we did to take control of that game," forward Drayson Bowman said. "I think that's the biggest thing, is just getting back to that as quick as we can to start the game against Florida, and away we go."

Who's hot: Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau was named NHL Rookie of the Month for February. He had nine points in 13 games but is scoreless in the past four. Campbell has five points in his past two games. … The Hurricanes' top line combined for eight points against the Penguins: Jiri Tlusty had two goals and an assist, Eric Staal had a goal and two assists, and Alexander Semin had two assists. Carolina has killed off 22 of its past 23 penalties.

Injury report: Florida forward Scottie Upshall (ankle) will return, according to the Sun Sentinel. Forward Kris Versteeg (chest) is questionable, and defenseman Michael Caruso (wrist) could be available soon. Defensemen Mike Weaver (lower body) and Ed Jovanovski (lower body) are out indefinitely. … Skinner (concussion) returned Thursday after missing five games. Also back were defensemen Tim Gleason (lower body) and Jamie McBain (upper body), and forward Tim Brent (lower body). Defenseman Joni Pitkanen (lower body) remains out.

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