PANTHERS (5-3-0) at SENATORS (4-5-0)
TV: FS-F, SNET-OTT
Season Series: The Senators have a six-game winning streak going against the Panthers dating back to the Cats' last win on Jan. 9, 2010, a Tomas Vokoun 3-0 shutout in Ottawa. Since then, it's been all Senators, outscoring the Panthers 24-10 and holding them to a single goal in each of the last three, all wins for Craig Anderson.
Big story: Decisions, decisions. The Senators had one major decision to make in sending 2011 top pick Mika Zibanejad back to Sweden and the Panthers had one in choosing a No. 1 goalie, which went to Jose Theodore. The Zibanejad move comes in the middle of a three-game winning streak, a time coaches don't usually like to shuffle a roster. Jacob Markstrom is making things tough for Panthers coach Kevin Dineen by picking up a couple of wins against the Islanders and Canadiens.
Panthers: The ninth game of the NHL season is pivotal if a team has a top prospect on the roster, and for the Panthers, that prospect is defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the No. 3 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft. Thursday will be his ninth game, and therefore decision time, for Gudbranson, and GM Dale Tallon is thinking of keeping him in a Panthers uniform.
"Yeah, he's played well enough,'' Tallon said to the Sun-Sentinel when asked if Gudbranson deserved to stay. "I think it's probably a positive for him to stay here, but we're going to decide on Friday."
"It's obviously exciting to hear,'' Gudbranson told the paper. "I have one big game left and a lot to improve on.
"I'm still young, still learning things. The big thing is to continue plays and make good plays, so obviously, I'm still adjusting to that. I feel very comfortable here."
Senators: Sending Zibanejad back to the Swedish Elite League is a long-term decision, because in the short term, it leaves the Senators without a second-line center on a team that has won three in a row. Still, in the minds of the front office, Zibanejad's overall development takes priority over filling a roster spot.
"I think the reason we're probably sending him back is that we want him to have the puck, we want him to have a chance to score points, to be a legitimate top-six NHL player," GM Bryan Murray explained in the Ottawa Citizen. "I think at 18 years of age, he was playing the last little bit to survive and not make mistakes, rather than be a creative kind of kid that we think he'll turn out to be."
Who's hot : Ottawa's Jason Spezza has a pair of three-point games interspersed in a four-game goal-scoring streak. His 12 points match Daniel Sedin for second in the NHL. Milan Michalek is also in the top 10 with 10 points, though he was kept off the board Tuesday in Carolina. … Despite Theodore getting the nod as top goaltender, 21-year-old Markstrom earned his keep the last two games, taking over for Theodore in the third period of a 2-2 game Saturday night, shutting the Islanders down while his teammates scored twice en route to a 4-2 win. That earned him a start Monday, and he responded with a 40-save performance in a 2-1 win at Montreal. Kris Versteeg leads the Panthers offensively with nine points in his first eight games.
Injury report: Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim (soreness) and goalie Scott Clemmensen (knee surgery) remain out until the end of the month at least. … Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson missed a game with a hip flexor but is expected back Thursday. Forward Peter Regin re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder last Thursday and is out indefinitely. Defenseman Matt Carkner (knee) is looking at an early November return.
Stat pack: Perfect performances in their last two games (3-for-3 overall) have vaulted the Senators' power play to tops in the NHL at 31.2 percent. … The Panthers had hit a dry spell with a man up, going 0-for-5 since their franchise-record five goals in Tampa Bay, but scored Monday against the Canadiens. Their 27.3 percent conversion rate is good for fifth in the League. In contrast, the Panthers' and Senators' penalty kills are 27th and 29th respectively.
Puck drop: "From a selfish point of view, it was very difficult. We like him. He's a good man, he's a guy that would work hard and do everything the coaches asked during a game ... We look at this young man and (we could see) at Christmas time or early January, he'd probably be contributing more offensively than he's capable of doing right now. But we think, for (his) long-term development and to give him an opportunity to become what we believe he has a chance to become - and that is a quality NHL player - that this is the right step for him at the moment." -- Murray on the difficult decision to send Zibanejad back to Sweden for another year