SUNRISE - Playing eight consecutive games against teams who are a combined 94 games over .500 can be a daunting task. But two games into the toughest stretch of their season, and with a 1-1 record, the Panthers are taking things one game at a time.
“It’s kind of funny,” said defenseman Jassen Cullimore after Tuesday’s 4-0 shutout win over New Jersey. “I have to ask my wife or the guys on the team who we’re playing next. It’s kind of a good thing. You can’t look too far ahead and I think that’s what we’re doing.
“We’re just playing one game at a time. I know it’s a cliché, but it works.”
The Panthers hope to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings tonight at BankAtlantic Center when they host the Chicago Blackhawks, currently second in the Central Division behind the Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings and fourth in the Western Conference. They’re 6-3 in their last nine road games and have 37 road points, second in the West behind Detroit.
The Panthers come into the game 29-20-8 (16-7-5 at home) and are 13-4-3 since Jan. 1. Going into tonight’s game, the Panthers are seventh in the Eastern Conference, only three points behind fourth-place Philadelphia. They’ve also distanced themselves by five points from ninth-place Carolina.
It’s a big night in the East, with the Panthers, eighth-place Buffalo, Philadelphia, sixth-place Montreal and Carolina all playing.
The Panthers are 1-2-1 this season against teams in the Central Division, 6-7-1 against teams in the Western Conference. This is only the third meeting between the two teams over the last three seasons. The Panthers are 7-10-3 over the years against the Blackhawks. The Panthers first regular-season game was played at Chicago Stadium on Oct. 6, 1993, when the teams skated to a 4-4 tie.
“They’re a real dangerous team,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer of the Blackhawks. “They can hurt you in a lot of different ways. They have great talent, great speed. Starting with their back-end, they have six as mobile, puck-moving defensemen as there are in the league. It starts back there, and with some of the dynamic forwards up front, with (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane…I coached against Pat Kane for three, four years when he was a junior in London and this guy is fantastic. He’s a smaller version of (Alex) Ovechkin.”
The Blackhawks are led by Kane (51 points), Martin Havlat (47 points) and Jonathan Toews (20 goals), but they’ll be without two of their top players this evening.
Patrick Sharp, who leads the Blackhawks in goals (23), and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin were both put Wednesday in injured reserve. Sharp injured his left knee Saturday against the Stars while Khabibulin has a groin strain.
Cristobal Huet, who earned his 15th victory of the season Tuesday in Tampa, will likely get the start in goal. The Blackhawks took a season-high 49 shots Tuesday when winning 5-3 in Tampa. ROOKIES FROLIK, VERSTEEG ON SAME ICE
The Panthers Michael Frolik and ‘Hawks Kris Versteeg
, both candidates for the Calder Trophy, will be on the ice together for the first time this season.
Versteeg, a fifth-round draft pick in 2004 by the Bruins, leads all rookies with 42 points (16 goals) while Frolik, the 10th pick overall in the 2006 draft, has 29 points (14 goals).
Versteeg told The Hockey News recently being part of the resurrected Blackhawks has been “absolutely amazing.”
“It’s not only a dream come true for us players, but it’s been great for the city,” he added.NOTES
The Panthers are 21-1-1 when leading after two periods, and they’re 7-1-2 when allowing 40 or more shots…The Panthers last 18 goals have all come from their forwards, with Zednik scoring five, Horton four and Frolik three…Cory Stillman has 21 points in his last 20 games…Frolik has a four-game point streak (three goals)…Zednik has 15 points (eight goals) in his last 20 games…Weiss has 15 points (12 assists) in his last 17 games…Horton has four goals in his last five games…Defenseman Jassen Cullimore needs one more point for his 100th in the NHL…