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Struggling 'Canes head to Florida

by Tal Pinchevsky /
HURRICANES (10-18-5) at PANTHERS (17-9-6)

: FS-F

Last 10: Carolina 2-7-1; Florida 5-3-2.

Season Series: This is the second of six meetings this season between Southeast Division rivals, who will meet four times between Feb. 25 and the season finale on Apr. 7. In their only other meeting this season on Nov. 29, Shawn Matthias scored the game-winner with 3:19 left in regulation before sealing a 3-1 Florida victory with an empty-net goal.

Big Story: Florida has maintained its comfortable division lead through most of the season but Carolina has failed to gain any momentum under new coach Kirk Muller, going 2-5-1 since he replaced Paul Maurice behind the bench on Nov. 28. Both teams are coming off wins against Canadian franchises -- Carolina topped Vancouver 4-3 on Thursday and the Panthers edged Calgary 3-2 in a shootout on Friday.

Team Scope:

Hurricanes: Muller's tough start to his head coaching career in the NHL got even more difficult with the recent loss of top scorer Jeff Skinner and defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Both players have played a sizeable role in the team’s offensive scheme and are out indefinitely with concussions. Despite the injuries, Carolina followed up a 1-2-1 road trip with a strong effort against the Canucks on Thursday.

Facing off against one of the Western Conference's top teams, the Hurricanes overcame a 2-0 deficit at home and rode four unanswered goals and a standout 33-save performance by Cam Ward to post the 4-3 win. Jaroslav Spacek's first goal with the Hurricanes proved to be the eventual winner and Carolina's 41 shots more than doubled their 19 from their previous game, a 2-1 overtime loss in Toronto, and matched their highest output of the season. Playing in just his fourth NHL game of the season, AHL call-up Drayson Bowman paced the Carolina offense with two goals, his first since a two-goal performance on Apr. 6, 2010.

"Coming up from Charlotte, that's just what you hope to do - come in and bring whatever you can," Bowman said. "If it's two goals, it's great."

Panthers: The first-place Panthers started their current season-long four-game homestand on Tuesday with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils. They came out on the winning end of a 3-2 shootout in their next game against the Flames on Friday.

Against Calgary, Sean Bergenheim scored his second goal of the game with 4:35 remaining in regulation to tie the Flames 2-2. Overtime solved nothing and Stephen Weiss won it with his tally in the fourth round of the shootout. The game was quite the welcoming party for Flames goaltender Leland Irving, who stopped 39 shots in his NHL debut before stopping two more in the shootout.
The shootout win bucked an unpleasant trend for the Panthers, who had lost their previous four shootouts and scored just once in 14 attempts coming into the game. The shootout win was also their first since the team's home opener Oct. 15 against the Lightning.

Who's Hot: Center Tuomo Ruutu has four points in his last five games for the Hurricanes while Eric Staal appears to have overcome his dreadful start to the season with 10 points in his last nine games. … For Florida, Kris Versteeg has seven points in his last seven games and Weiss has 19 points in his last 16 games.

Injury Report: Along with Skinner and Pitkanen, the Hurricanes could be missing Jay Harrison, who is also out with a concussion while Brian Boucher (lower body) is on IR. … Panthers rookie defenseman Erik Gudbranson is questionable with a lower-body injury while Marcel Goc (concussion-like symptoms) and Scottie Upshall (upper body) are on IR.

Stat Pack: Florida's offense has benefited from a number of players suddenly enjoying career seasons. Defenseman Jason Garrison has already established a new season high with nine goals, close to double his previous high of five. With 15 goals in 31 games, Versteeg is well on his way to surpassing his career high of 21, which he set as a rookie in 2008-09. With 31 points in 32 games, Weiss should obliterate his previous career high of 61 points while Flesichmann is on pace to surpass his career high for goals, assists, points, plus/minus, penalty minutes and shots.

Puck Drop: Muller and Panthers coach Kevin Dineen should be very familiar with one another when they face off on Sunday. As players, the two combined for 2,537 NHL games (1,349 for Muller, 1,188 for Dineen). Among active NHL head coaches, only the Capitals' Dale Hunter, who participated in 1,401 NHL games, appeared in more contests as a player.
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