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Panthers-Lightning Preview @NHLdotcom

GAME: Florida Panthers (34-31-9) at Tampa Bay Lightning (39-30-5).

TIME: Monday, 7:30 p.m. EDT.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning try to shake off a rough game and strengthen their hold on the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot as they complete a home-and-home series with the surging Florida Panthers.

The Lightning fell behind just 24 seconds into the contest and allowed 19 shots on goal in the first period of Saturday's 4-2 loss at Florida. Brad Richards set up both goals for Tampa Bay, which is five points in front of Atlanta - which visits Ottawa on Monday - and six ahead of Florida.

"We were sloppy from the start. That's why we were down 4-1," said Richards, who has 10 assists in his last five games. "We put together a very good third but they've got a great goalie and we just ran out of time."

Roberto Luongo turned aside 42 shots to beat the Lightning for the fourth straight time. After Joe Nieuwendyk scored twice to help the Panthers build a three-goal lead, Luongo turned aside 24 of Tampa Bay's 25 shots in the final 20 minutes.

Florida, which has not made the playoffs since 2000, has won eight of its last nine games.

"They were throwing everything at the net and I got lucky a couple of times," said Luongo, who is 4-1-0 with a .925 save percentage in his last five games. "I was getting a little tired but I was confident I could protect the lead. We're playing them two more times but this first one is done."

While Luongo has been solid throughout the season, Tampa Bay's John Grahame has been inconsistent. Grahame gave up all of four of Tampa Bay's goals on 26 shots and was replaced by Sean Burke with 4:25 to go in the second period.

Grahame is 3-2-0 with an .885 save percentage in his last five starts and has allowed at least three goals in five of his last six games. He is just 1-3-0 with a 4.14 goals-against average vs. the Panthers this season. However, the Lightning generated several opportunities against the Panthers on Saturday and defenseman Darryl Sydor saw cause for optimism.

"We had a lot of chances and a couple empty nets," Sydor said. "Luongo made a few big saves on shots that are normally goals."

The Panthers host the Lightning on Sunday in the final regular season meeting between the teams.

STANDINGS: Panthers - 77 points, 4th place, 25 PB, Southeast Division. Lightning - 83 points, 2nd place, 19 PB, Southeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Panthers - Olli Jokinen, 34 goals, 45 assists and 79 points; Chris Gratton, 94 PIM. Lightning - Vincent Lecavalier, 32 goals; Richards, 62 assists and 83 points; Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, 88 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Panthers - Power play: 15.3 percent (57 for 373), 24th in NHL. Penalty killing: 83.1 percent (384 for 462), 14th. Lightning - Power play: 16.4 percent (72 for 440), 23rd. Penalty killing: 81.6 percent (288 for 353), 19th.

GOALTENDERS: Panthers - Luongo (33-27-9, 4 SO, 2.94 GAA); Jamie McLennan (1-4-0, 0, 2.95). Lightning - Grahame (28-20-1, 5, 3.03); Burke (11-9-3, 1, 2.87).

SEASON SERIES: Panthers, 5-1.

LAST MEETING: Saturday; Lightning, 4-2. At Sunrise, Fla., Nieuwendyk had two goals and an assist and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester had a pair of assists for the Panthers.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 11-22-5 on the road; Lightning - 21-12-2 at home.

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