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Panthers start trip against equally desperate Leafs

by Brian Hunter
PANTHERS (17-18-7) at MAPLE LEAFS (14-19-9)

Last 10: Florida 5-4-1; Toronto 3-5-2

Season Series: Second of four meetings this season. Phil Kessel and Niklas Hagman each scored a pair of goals as Toronto won a high-scoring affair in Florida on Nov. 27. The Panthers led 2-0 just 2:04 into the game and let a couple other leads slip away in defeat.

Big Story:
Both of these teams need to start winning, and winning now if they hope to entertain playoff aspirations over the final six weeks following the Olympic break. The Panthers are in somewhat better shape, only four points out of eighth, but there are also a glut of teams directly ahead of them and they begin play Tuesday 13th in the Eastern Conference standings. Directly behind them in 14th are the Maple Leafs, who are eight points out.

Team Scope:

This is the start of a three-game road trip for Florida, which feels as though it has some positive momentum on its side after finally breaking through against defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. Facing an early two-goal deficit on home ice Sunday, the Panthers responded with six unanswered goals -- including a hat trick for Radek Dvorak -- in a 6-2 win. Tomas Vokoun made 46 saves as the Panthers snapped a three-game losing streak and beat the Penguins for the first time this season after three straight 3-2 defeats.

"We're in a good frame of mind right now," coach Peter DeBoer said. "I think we're playing well and we've got to carry that into the trip."

Maple Leafs:
Not only did Toronto lose a game to Calgary on Saturday, forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Wayne Primeau also went down with injuries that will sideline them for significant portions of time. Grabovski's loss in particular will hurt, as his 25 points were tied with Jason Blake for fifth on the team. John Mitchell is set to return after missing 20 games with a knee injury and figures to fill Grabovski's role as the second-line center.

"We've got half a season left," Mitchell told the Toronto Star. "That's the way I've got to look at it. I got hurt at the time I did. I'm just looking forward to getting back into to the lineup and contribute as much as I can to get us into the playoffs.

"That will extend the season and everybody will be really happy."

Who's Hot:
Florida forward Nathan Horton followed up a sizzling month of December with a pair of assists against Pittsburgh, giving him consecutive multi-point games. Steven Reinprecht has goals in two straight. Dvorak's hat trick was the third of his career. … Blake has three goals in his last four games, including the only score for Toronto against Calgary.

Injury Report:
Panthers forward David Booth may not return this season after suffering a serious concussion in late October. He joins forward Kenndal McArdle (shoulder/arm) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (knee) on injured reserve.

Grabovski broke his wrist Saturday and is expected to miss six weeks. Primeau is likely out 2-4 weeks with a knee injury. Also out for the Leafs are defensemen Carl Gunnarsson (hyperextended elbow) and Mike Van Ryn (knee).

Stat Pack:
Florida has won its last three games at the Air Canada Centre, outscoring Toronto 16-5 in the process. … Tomas Kaberle remains the Leafs' leading scorer with 35 points but has just four assists over his last 10 games.

Puck Drop:
"We need a good trip," DeBoer said as the Panthers set out to play not only the Leafs, but the Canadiens and Senators later in the week. "The expectation, and we talked about it this morning, is these are three four-point games. All these three teams are right in the mix with us. Our expectation is to win all three and we've got to do that one at a time."

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