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A Big Battle With Boston

by Glenn Odebralski / Florida Panthers
Florida and Boston meet for the fourth time this season. The Panthers are 1-1-1 against the Bruins.

Sometimes it's good to look ahead.

With the Panthers race to the finish of the season in a dead heat for the Southeast Division, Florida has looked at holding off Washington, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay. Trying to keep the top spot in the Division comes with a top three finish in the Conference and home-ice advantage in the opening round.

Entrenched as the third seed for quite some time, Florida actually has a chance to gain ground on the Northeast Division leading Boston Bruins as the two teams face off tonight at the BankAtlantic Center. Boston is just four points (83 points) ahead of Florida in the Conference. A regulation win would give Florida 81 points and leave them two points behind the Bruins with the same amount of games played.

"That's interesting you mention that because we do talk about where our situation is and we do look at this as a four point game," said head coach Kevin Dineen following the morning skate when asked about the battle with the Bruins and gaining ground in the Conference.

"Everybody has been talking about the teams behind us and you never really look at teams ahead of you," said defenseman Mike Weaver. "But we have a chance to gain a few points and eventually move up a spot. We just have to take care of our own game."

"You can't be always looking behind you and I guess when you're in a race, if you're looking behind you then you're always worried about that guy," said forward Kris Versteeg who while he won't play against Boston could be ready to go against Buffalo on Saturday. "But we're trying to look ahead now. Well not now. We've always tried to look ahead, tried to increase our seed in the standings. So far we've done very well and getting close. Now it's just about getting three or four wins together and being consistent."

Boston has struggled of late, having lost their last three games, including dropping a 6-1 decision to Tampa in their last game on Tuesday.

"I know we're playing a, excuse the pun, a bit of a "wounded bear" right now after their game in Tampa," said Dineen. "We know that we're going to have our hands full. This is the kind of games we're going to play down the stretch and I don't think the timing could be any better for us. It will be a great challenge for us."

Despite the struggles of late, Florida knows that they're in for a tough Boston team. Case in point is the 8-0 shutout in Boston on December 23rd, a game that the Panthers coaches and players brought up.

"It's a team that put a pretty good Christmas beating on for us  on the 23rd. Sent us on our break licking our wounds a little bit," said Dineen. "Every team has their stretches where you go through droughts. I think Boston's success has come in great bunches and right now it's not happening that way but too much respect for that organization and that coaching staff to know that they won't be readily prepared for tonight's game.

"They're a good team. We found that out when we went into their building (in December)," said Weaver. "They're going to come out hard and we're going to come out hard. We just have to worry about what we're able to do on the ice; the energy and keeping it simple on the ice, just more or less making this a playoff game. For us it is. Every point is so vital to us."

It's all about taking the Bruins game one step at a time in aiming for the victory.

"You can't look five games ahead," said Weaver. "You just have to really concentrate on this game. This game is huge. Every single period, every single shift, every single time you touch a puck. It's going to be like a playoff game. We really have to keep this thing going. We've won the last two games but we haven't been up against an opponent like Boston. It's going to be a really huge test."

Kris Versteeg, Dmitry Kulikov and Scottie Upshall all went through the morning skate and stayed on for more work following the end of the practice. Both Versteeg and Kulikov keep getting closer to a return.

"Closer and closer so they got a pretty good skate today," said Dineen. "We'll see how that plays out on Saturday. We're encouraged by the progress of both those players are making."

The Panthers have missed the players and a return would be a huge boost down the stretch.

"Kuli was so impressive at the beginning of the year," said Dineen. "He's a young player. He shows a great deal of maturity and stability. He's been sorely missed so we're excited about his imminent return."

"I think the rest sometimes is nice on the whole thing if you're going to take a positive," said Versteeg. "But when you see everyone else there and you want to get back out there and help them as much as you can, it's tough. Right now I think the rest is a positive."

For Jack Skille, the news continues to not be as promising.

"I don't think Jack is going to play again this season," said Dineen. "I would be very surprised if he comes back. I think we're just waiting for the final. When the player goes through the process of exploring all opinions and options but I think our conversations about Jack would be anything that we would consider realistic for quite aways from months away."
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