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Panthers hope to turn things around against Leafs

by David Kalan
MAPLE LEAFS (18-13-4) at PANTHERS (18-11-7)


Last 10: Toronto 4-4-2; Florida 4-3-3

Season series: The Panthers took the only previous meeting between these two teams this season, a 5-1 trouncing of the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 8.

Big story: The young Panthers have been a surprise all season long as they've climbed to the top of the Southeast, but with the end of 2011 coming, there's a chance the clock is about to strike midnight for them in more ways than one. Faced with their first real major slump of the season, the Cats desperately need a win against the Maple Leafs to keep their impressive first half on the rails.

Team Scope:

Maple Leafs: While the Panthers are enduring a protracted slump, it appeared Toronto was headed the same way until the end of last week. The Leafs had had a strong start of their own, which was suddenly jeopardized by a stretch in December that saw them win just one of their previous six games. Instead, Toronto is now looking for its third straight win after knocking off Buffalo and the New York Islanders on back-to-back nights heading into the Christmas break, and is on the verge of tying its season-high winning streak.

Despite the improvement, however, Toronto is still a victim of playing in the same division as the defending-champion Bruins, who look like they may be taking another run at Stanley this spring. Still the Leafs are sitting in the East's top eight, which is a major step in the right direction for a franchise that has missed the playoffs for the past six seasons. If they can string together some more victories now it will be particularly impressive considering Tuesday night will be the second stop on a four-game road trip that will also take the Leafs to Carolina and Winnipeg.

Panthers: Those who are waiting for Florida's remarkable first-half run to end and bring the team back down to Earth may finally be getting their due. Florida has lost three straight, and after what could only be considered an embarrassing 8-0 lead to Boston Friday night, the Cats are desperately in need of a win. That loss, the franchise's worse since a 12-2 defeat at Washington nearly 19 years ago, was the coda to a particularly rough stretch for the Cats, who have no regulation wins in their last eight games.

Still, the Panthers currently hold a hefty lead in the Southeast Division on Winnipeg and Washington, though the Capitals do have multiple games in hand on Florida. That lead will only start to shrink if the Panthers don't find their winning ways soon, but with Tuesday night's game being the opener of the three-game homestand to close out 2011, the light may be at the end of the tunnel. Only Chicago has fewer regulation losses at home than the Panthers this season.

Who's Hot: The Florida weather must agree with Kris Versteeg, who has kept up his impressive first season with the Panthers by tallying four points in the last four games. ... Is Nazem Kadri finally up with the big club to stay? The No. 7 overall pick in 2009 has scored in both games since his most recent callup from the AHL, including a game-winner in his first game back with the Leafs against Buffalo.

Injury Report: Defenseman John-Michael Liles is questionable with a sore neck for Toronto. Mikael Samuelsson (upper-body injury), Stephen Weiss (upper-body injury) and Marco Sturm (head injury) are all questionable for Florida.
Stat Pack: It's not often that a team can come to the BankAtlantic Center without giving up some skin to the Panthers. Florida has ended up without a point in only three of its 16 home games this season.

Puck Drop: Christmas is usually a quiet day for the NHL, but the Leafs made some noise this holiday season when head coach Ron Wilson tweeted that he found a contract extension under his tree. Many would say the experienced bench boss earned the gift, but it will be up to his players to justify it. With the Panthers hungry for a victory, however, Toronto's opponent Tuesday won't want that justification to come easy.

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