BRUINS (18-11-4) at PANTHERS (16-17-0)
TV -- NESN (HD), FS-F (HD)
-- Boston 5-3-2; Florida 6-4-0
-- Boston took the first two meetings of the season with Florida, most recently a 3-1 victory over the Panthers on Nov. 24 at BankAtlantic Center.
-- The Bruins and ex-Panther Nathan Horton
are making their second trip to Florida this season with thoughts of tying Montreal atop the Northeast Division.
-- All things considered, things could be worse for Boston as it opens a five-game road trip -- but that doesn't mean they're great. The Bruins won their last game, a 4-1 victory over Atlanta Dec. 23 spurred on by an unusual two-goal outing from Shawn Thornton
, but prior to that the B's had gone a middling 1-3-1 over their previous five-games, leaving them two points behind Montreal in the Northeast.
The good news is Boston still has three games in hand over the Habs and will open its road swing in Florida, where the Bruins have won their last three visits. Coming back to Sunrise could provide some inspiration for Horton. The former Panther had 3 assists in his first game against his old mates this year, but Boston might be more concerned about a potential return to form for goaltender Tim Thomas
. Thomas has looked surprisingly human recently, losing two of his last four starts -- giving him all of four on the season.
-- While Florida is 15 points out of first place, its cellar-dwelling position in the surprisingly competitive Southeast Division can be misleading. The Panthers, who are in the midst of rebuilding in Dale Tallon's first year as general manager, have won three of their last four games while scoring 17 goals over that span. Their last game was a 4-3 win over Buffalo that almost saw an early three-goal lead slip away before defenseman Jason Garrison
scored the game-winner in the third period.
Florida's improving offense could prove vexing for Thomas, and with the potency of players both young -- Stephen Weiss
has 7 points on a current five-game points streak -- and old -- Bryan McCabe has 6 points during a five-game streak of his own -- the Panthers are starting to show they can bombard from all corners. The playoffs may be an unlikely result for the Cats, but they are proving a dangerous team to overlook.
-- Center Patrice Bergeron
has tallied 6 points in the last four games for the Bruins. ... Winger Evgeny Dadonov
appears to be getting into a groove with the big club. The 2007 third-round pick has 7 points in the last five games.
-- Brad Marchand
(undisclosed) and Andrew Ference
(face/right eye) are listed as questionable for Boston. Florida is still without Radek Dvorak (shoulder), Cory Stillman (back spasms) and Rostislav Olesz (broken finger).
-- Something about the Panthers might be inspiring Boston to fire the puck more often than usual. In the Bruins' first two games with Florida this season, they averaged 39 shots, well above their season output of 32.7 shots per game. Expect Florida netminder Tomas Vokoun to have a busy night.
-- The Bruins are in the thick of a tight race in the Northeast, and their current trip will give them a valuable opportunity to take the top spot back, as well as fully pull out of their recent funk -- but it won't be easy. Despite already defeating Florida twice this year, the Bruins could be in for a fight against what is proving to be a feisty Panther team, and starting the road swing on a down note could leave the rest of it tasting sour.