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Panthers-Hurricanes Preview @NHL

Thursday begins a stretch where the Carolina Hurricanes play seven straight games against Southeast Division opponents. Coach Peter Laviolette, though, isn't all that concerned with divisional play.

Carolina looks to continue its dominance of the Florida Panthers when the teams meet at the RBC Center.

The Hurricanes (23-18-4) will play Washington three times, Florida twice and Atlanta and Tampa Bay once in their next seven games. Carolina is six points behind the first-place Thrashers.

"Division games don't mean anything anymore," Laviolette told the team's official Web site. "The only thing that matters is the conference. You've got to finish as high up in your conference to make sure you get home ice for the playoffs."

Laviolette's team has played well against its own division this season, winning 10 of 13 games after going 18-11-3 in 2005-06.

Carolina has been particularly good against Florida, going 8-2-1 in the last 11 overall meetings. The Hurricanes have eight wins and a tie in their last nine home games against the Panthers since a 2-0 loss on Dec. 6, 2002.

Three second-period goals and 29 saves from Cam Ward helped Carolina to a 4-2 victory Tuesday at Toronto.

The Hurricanes have scored eight goals in back-to-back wins after managing only two during a three-game losing streak. The power play has been a big catalyst in that success, converting on four of 12 chances after going 1-for-18 during the skid.

Ward, who made his sixth straight start Tuesday, said he doesn't mind the heavy workload.

"There's not a game that goes by that you don't want to be in," he said. "With that being said, you know that you can't play all of them. I'm happy with getting the opportunity and I'm just trying to make the most of it."

Captain Olli Jokinen recorded his second hat trick this season on Wednesday, leading Florida (16-20-9) to a 5-2 victory over visiting Pittsburgh.

"It's always nice to score goals, but it goes hand-in-hand with your top players being at their best and giving your team a chance to win," Jokinen said.

Jozef Stumpel and Martin Gelinas each had a goal and two assists for the Panthers, who have points in five straight at home (4-0-1). Florida hasn't been able to carry that success over to the road, where it is 5-12-7 this season, including 0-2-2 in its last four.

"(Jokinen) is a top player and that's what you expect from your captain," Florida coach Jacques Martin said. "It's nice to see a strong performance. We are going to need those kinds of performances going forward."

Jokinen's second goal of the game Wednesday came on the power play. It was just Florida's second goal with the man advantage in 31 opportunities over an eight-game span.

Alex Auld stopped 23 shots against the Penguins, ending a personal three-game losing streak.

With Auld starting Tuesday, veteran Ed Belfour likely will make the start Wednesday. The Panthers have gained at least one point in seven of Belfour's last eight starts (5-1-2).

Florida won the first meeting between these teams this season, 6-3 at home on Oct. 11, but Carolina swept a home-and-home set with a 3-2 victory on Dec. 23 and a 4-2 win in Raleigh three days later.

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