PANTHERS (21-14-10) AT BLACKHAWKS (28-23-6)
TV: FS-F, CSN-CH
Last 10: Florida 3-4-3; Chicago 5-3-2
Season Series: This will be the second and last meeting of the season between Chicago and Florida; the Blackhawks took the first game 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 3 at BankAtlantic Center. Patrick Kane’s shootout goal finally decided it in favor of the visitors from the Windy City that night.
Big Story: If any opponent gives the Blackhawks the feel of a reunion game for the 2010 Stanley Cup title run, it’s Florida. The Panthers are run by former Hawks general manager Dale Tallon and have five former Blackhawks on the roster – including four who played regular roles in the Cup-winning season. One of them is forward Kris Versteeg, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a salary-cap related maneuver not long after Chicago celebrated its championship. That deal brought prospects plus promising young forward Viktor Stalberg, who's coming into his own in his third full season. Versteeg, meanwhile, was traded again last season to the Philadelphia Flyers and then again to the Panthers during the summer.
Panthers: Florida has won just one game in its previous five and lost a heartbreaker on Wednesday night in Colorado. The Panthers frittered away a 3-1 lead in the third period and then lost on Ryan O’Reilly’s goal with 1:05 left in overtime. Marcel Goc, former Blackhawk Tomas Kopecky and Stephen Weiss scored for Florida, while defenseman Dmitry Kulikov added a pair of assists. The loss left the Panthers clinging to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 52 points and stood just three ahead of ninth-place Toronto prior to Thursday’s action.
The only good news that came out of Colorado on Wednesday might’ve been Weiss’ goal, which was the first scored by the Panthers’ top line since the calendar flipped to 2012. Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann have been held goal-less in the new year, but Versteeg used to light the lamp at the Madhouse on Madison regularly as a Hawk and Fleischmann potted a hat trick there for the Avalanche last season.
“It's frustrating," said former Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell, referring to the OT loss which saw the Panthers come up empty on two breakaways in the extra session. "We have to find a way to win that in overtime. I know we don't want to be in that situation in the first place, but it would have been nice to get something going there."
Blackhawks: Almost everything went right in a 6-2 rout of the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night at the United Center. The Hawks did what coach Joel Quenneville asked by getting some shots through from the point and two of them, by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, led directly to rebound goals. One of those rebound goals was scored by captain Jonathan Toews, who scored twice in the game, while the other was scored by rookie Andrew Shaw. He's become kind of a sensation since scoring in four straight games and having five goals in just eight career games. Fellow rookie Jimmy Hayes also keeps making a name for himself as a power forward. Since hitting a little lull, the Hawks are 4-0-2 in their last six games and winners of two straight – both at home.
“We know how competitive it is and I think you’ve got to like the response we’ve gotten over these last few games,” Quenneville said of the ultra-tight race for standings points in the Western Conference and Central Division. “The guys have been pretty receptive to playing at home and prioritizing points, knowing that at the end of the night you could be going from the fifth seed to the first seed – and who know how long that’s going to go on?"
Who's Hot: Kopecky has points in four of his last five games for the Panthers, including his goal on Wednesday night in Colorado. … Shaw, Hayes, Toews and Hossa immediately come to mind as Hawks who are on a roll, but lost in the shuffle is a torrid stretch by two-way center Dave Bolland – who’s scored goals in five of the past six games for nine points (six goals and three assists) whole continuing continued to play well on the defensive end.
Injury Report: Florida is really banged up with Scottie Upshall (hip), Jack Skille (upper body), Sean Bergenheim (lower body), Marco Sturm (upper body) and Jacob Markstrom are all on injured reserve, plus Ed Jovanovski possibly out for a couple months after breaking his hand in Colorado. … Chicago lost Daniel Carcillo to season-ending knee surgery and Patrick Sharp (upper body) is likely out for at least the next couple of weeks.
Stat Pack: The Panthers have dropped seven road games in a row (0-3-4), while the Hawks have won three straight on home ice and have tallied points in 22 of 27 games at the United Center.
Puck Drop: Aside from goalie Cristobal Huet, who’s playing in Europe, Versteeg is the only other former Blackhawks player from the 2010 who hasn’t yet made a return trip to the Madhouse on Madison to see the Cup banner in the rafters.