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Panthers try to beat Isles for third time in a row

by John Kreiser

PANTHERS (21-21-8) at ISLANDERS (22-20-8)

Last 10 -- Florida 5-4-1; New York 7-2-1

Season series -- The teams are meeting for the third time this season. The Panthers won the first two, beating the Islanders 5-4 in a shootout on Nov. 14 at the BankAtlanticCenter, then routing the Isles 7-1 at the Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 14. Florida has won the last three meetings between the teams and eight of the last 10.

Big story -- Despite Tuesday's 6-4 loss at Pittsburgh, the Islanders enter the night in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference -- but they're part of a five-team pack that's within two points. One of those teams is the Panthers, who missed a chance to pull even with New York at 52 points when they lost 2-0 at New Jersey on Wednesday.

Team Scope:

Panthers -- Goals have been at a premium in Panthers' games this week. Florida beat Atlanta 1-0 at home on Monday, then lost at New Jersey on Wednesday in a game that was 1-0 until Dean McAmmond hit the empty net with less than a second to go.

Still, the Panthers have won three of four to stay in the playoff hunt -- largely thanks to goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who has allowed just one goal in Florida's two games this week.

"Things are going pretty well and we're playing good hockey, so we just have to refocus and get ready for the Islanders," he said after the loss. "We need two points."

Islanders -- The Islanders have been playing their best hockey in several years, going 9-3-1 in their last 13 games despite Tuesday's loss at Pittsburgh. That game came one day after an emotional afternoon at a sold-out Coliseum when Rick DiPietro earned his first shutout in more than a year by blanking New Jersey 4-0. DiPietro is 2-1-0 in three starts since returning from knee injuries and surgery that kept him out for more than a full year.

The loss also cost the Islanders the services of Andy Sutton, one of their best -- and biggest -- defensemen. He was suspended for two games by the NHL on Wednesday for a boarding penalty against Pittsburgh that bloodied the face of Pens' forward Pascal Dupuis.

Who's hot -- Vokoun has allowed just one goal in two games is 4-1-1 with two shutouts in his last six. Rostislav Olesz has 5 goals and 6 points in his last six games while teammate Gregory Campbell has produced 2 goals and 3 points over his last five contests. … Isles second-year forward Josh Bailey has 25 points, matching his total for all of last season. He has 13 points in his last 10 games and 5 goals in his last nine.

Injury report -- Florida got center Stephen Weiss, its leading goal-scorer, back on Wednesday after he missed one game with a lower body injury. Forwards David Booth (concussion) and Nick Tarnasky (lower body) are not near returning. … The Islanders are as healthy as they've been in years at this time of the season, with only forward Tim Jackman (broken orbital bone) out for the near term and defenseman Radek Martinek (knee) gone for the season.

Stat pack -- The Islanders have won five in a row at home, their longest home winning streak in four years. Isles forward Matt Moulson, a free-agent signing during the summer, leads New York with 19 goals, including two on Monday, and is on pace to score 30.

Puck drop -- The Islanders played perhaps their worst game of the season when the Panthers came to Long Island a month ago. You can bet that coach Scott Gordon will remind them about it. It's a big game for both teams because of the tightness of the playoff race. The Isles are opening a three-game homestand, while the Panthers have scored just one goal in two games this week and are playing the second half of a back-to-back.

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