NEW YORK -- Stephen Weiss
was asked Thursday if he's starting to believe the Florida Panthers
are for real.
They've led the Southeast Division since Nov. 19 and will get a true test against the East-leading Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
"We played the last month or two with seven forwards out of our lineup and we're still leading our division, so we must be doing something right as a team," Weiss said following the team's practice at Chelsea Piers. "We're getting healthy now, and we want to make an even bigger push in the second half and start that tonight."
The Panthers, who haven't played since Dec. 31, will get two key players back against the Rangers -- Marcel Goc
and Mikael Samuelsson
. Goc has been out since Nov. 17 with a head injury while Samuelsson has played just six games since the was acquired from the Canucks in October due to lingering groin issues and a back injury suffered in late December.
"There's going to be an adjustment period here for them," Panthers coach Kevin Dineed said. "You'd like to ease guys back into the lineup, but that's not how we do things. If they're going to play, they're going to get right back into the thick of it. We're going to need a lot of quality hockey out of them to beat the top team in the conference. Marcel Goc
is a really important piece to our puzzle, and it'll be important to have them back in our lineup."
These teams met in Florida with the Rangers winning 4-1. As time expired, Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto
and Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky
exchanged blows with the Rangers' Michael Rupp
throwing punches at Kopecky.
The Panthers made it sound unlikely there will be a repeat of that melee.
"For us, to get wrapped up with that emotion, it doesn't benefit us," Dineen said. "It's non-productive."
"It's always physical against that club, so that'll be nothing new," Weiss said. "I think that's in the past. There's too much at stake right now with points to let that stuff get in the way."
A big reason for their Dec. 30 loss was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
, who stopped 27 of 28 shots. That won't be a problem Thursday, as all signs indicate that backup Martin Biron
will oppose the Panthers' Scott Clemmensen
in the fourth and final meeting between the teams this season.
"We want to have a better game," Weiss said. "I don't think the last game we played them that the score told the tale of the game. We had a (bad) start. Two goals off deflections. They got a 3-0 lead and the rest of the game we played pretty well. We just couldn't beat Lundqvist. We want to have a better effort for sure, especially against the top teams."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo