PANTHERS (2-5-0) at PENGUINS (8-1-0)
Season Series: This is the first of four meetings between Florida and Pittsburgh this season. They split the season series last year with the Penguins winning one game in a shootout.
Big Story: Talk about a matchup between two teams going in opposite directions. The Penguins have won six straight games since their embarrassing 3-0 loss to Phoenix. The Panthers have won only once in regulation so far this season and are coming off a 5-2 loss to Buffalo. However, this is also the first game the Penguins will play without the injured Sergei Gonchar, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken left wrist.
Panthers: They split with Chicago in Finland, but are 1-4 since returning home. Coach Peter DeBoer complained about the Panthers' "compete level" in their 5-2 home loss to Buffalo on Wednesday so he put his team through a rigorous practice Thursday. He's thought their performance Wednesday, particularly on defense, was "embarrassing." Florida outshot the Sabres, 43-36, but was down 5-1 after the first period despite getting four power-play chances, including a 5-on-3 for more than a minute. Defenseman Keith Ballard was a minus-2 and got benched in the third period.
"The reality is we're seven games into an 82-game schedule and you're going to have periods during the season like this," DeBoer said. "The fact that it's right off the bat magnifies it for us because of our history (of poor starts). But it's way too early to be panicking."
Penguins: They learned what life without Gonchar was like last season when the star defenseman was out until February with a shoulder injury. They'll have to remember how that was now that he's gone until sometime in December. Veteran Martin Skoula will replace Gonchar on defense and should start tonight's game paired with Jay McKee. Alex Goligoski and Brooks Orpik now form the Penguins' No. 1 pair while Mark Eaton and Kris Letang remain together. Brent Johnson should get the start in goal tonight.
"I'm sure (Skoula) didn't want it to be that way, but it's still a great opportunity for him to get in," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "He's a guy that's experienced. It's not like he'll have the nerves and things like that. He'll be able to come in and use that experience to his advantage."
Who's Hot: Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has seven points in his last five games. He had a goal on 12 shots in Monday's 5-1 win over St. Louis. Crosby has three assists in the last two games after going pointless in the previous two. Goligoski has three points and a plus-4 rating in the last three games. He's plus-9 for the season. Marc-Andre Fleury, who won't start tonight, leads the NHL with eight wins and is third among starting goalies with a 1.96 GAA. … Panthers center Michael Frolik has assists in the last two games and played 18:38 Wednesday night. It was the most ice time he has had in a game since the season-opener in Helsinki (19:28).
Injury Report: Gonchar will miss the first of many games tonight with his broken wrist. Maxime Talbot is still on IR with his shoulder injury. … The Panthers only report Nick Tarnasky on IR with a broken orbital bone. They've been playing 11 forwards and seven defenseman.
Stat Pack: Tonight's game is Crosby's 300th regular-season game in the NHL. He has 405 points. … The Panthers' top line of Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and David Booth has combined for five goals, three assists and a minus-16 rating. … Not including the shootout, Pittsburgh is outscoring its opponents, 32-19, while the Panthers have been outscored, 27-15.
Puck Drop: "They will be fine because they went through that stretch last year without me, and the experience of winning the Stanley Cup has helped us," Gonchar told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We went through the playoffs and played at a high level. It was a faster pace, which made every player better. That experience stays with you."
-- Dan Rosen, NHL.com