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Ward could return for Hurricanes vs. Panthers

by Sean McCullen

PANTHERS (22-28-7) at HURRICANES (25-21-9)


Last 10: Florida 4-6-0; Carolina 6-4-0

Season series: This is the second of three games. Alexander Semin scored twice in the third period to lift the Carolina Hurricanes to a 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers at PNC Arena on Jan. 18.

Big story: Cam Ward might make his first start in goal for Carolina since he sustained a lower-body injury Dec. 31 in a 5-4 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens, but coach Kirk Muller did not commit to a starter against Florida following practice Thursday. Anton Khudobin is 10-5-0 with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in 15 games, including 14 starts, since Ward's injury, making for a tough decision for Muller.

"Truthfully, we find with our group, we work better day-by-day," Muller said, according to the (Raleigh) News & Observer. "If we get into the big picture -- where you are in the standings, we need to pick up six points here, where you might be -- for whatever reason our group just works better focusing on the day at hand."

The Hurricanes host the Canadiens on Saturday, so it's likely each goalie will get one start before the NHL breaks for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Ward started two games for the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League during a conditioning stint last Friday and Saturday, stopping 59 of 63 shots. He missed 14 games due to the injury before serving as Khudobin's backup Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

Khudobin was named Monday as the NHL's First Star of the Month for January.

Team Scope:

Panthers: Florida has dropped four of five games after losing 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings at home Thursday. The Panthers had 24 shots on goal against the Red Wings after they registered a season-high 48 in a 4-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.

"We need shots," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "You're not going to score in this league if you're not getting a lot of shots, and we had eight shots in (the first) two periods. You can't do that. We've got to create more from the point in throwing shots to the net and getting traffic. It's simple."

The Panthers are 19th in the League at 29.8 shots per game.

The game is Florida's last before the Olympic break. The Panthers have two Olympians, Finland's Aleksander Barkov and Slovakia's Tomas Kopecky.

Hurricanes: Carolina fired 29 shots on goal Tuesday, but only Riley Nash managed to beat Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec in a game that saw the Hurricanes' three-game winning streak come to an end. The Hurricanes are 5-2-0 in their past seven, and with 59 points entering Friday, they are five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

"It's going to be a long stretch without hockey (with the 16-day Olympic break), so we want to make sure we're finishing strong here, before that layoff," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said, according to the News & Observer. "We've got two days to rest up and get ready for two strong games and we have to make sure we're on our toes and playing aggressive."

Who's hot: Panthers left wing Scottie Upshall has a goal and two assists in the past four games. … Hurricanes left wing Nathan Gerbe has two goals and two assists over the past five games.

Injury report: Florida defenseman Mike Mottau (leg) has been on injured reserve since Jan. 21. He has not played since Dec. 3. … Carolina reports a healthy lineup.

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