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Panthers aim to close Atlantic Division gap against Buffalo

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The Florida Panthers trailed the Buffalo Sabres by 14 points in the standings on Nov. 28.

But when the two clubs meet on Thursday night at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, the Panthers will have a chance to trim that deficit down to just six points, as both teams find themselves moving in opposite directions in the playoff race as the midway point of the season approaches.

Holding a loosening grasp on third place in the Atlantic Division, the Sabres (21-13-6) have lost six out of their last eight games. The Panthers (17-15-6), meanwhile, have won six out of eight.

"They definitely haven't been the prettiest, but there's a lot of games in this league where the game is so close that the team that just plays the simplest and hardest is going to get it done," Panthers winger Mike Hoffman said. "We've had a couple comebacks and stuck with it. Our special teams have been big, and goaltending has kept us in most games. Things have been going pretty good and hopefully we can keep it rolling tonight."

As Hoffman said, special teams have been key for the Panthers as season long, especially on the power play. Entering tonight's matchup with the third-ranked unit in the NHL behind a 27.9-percent success rate, they've lit the lamp with the man advantage in 25 of their last 29 games.

One of the main reasons for that execution with the extra attacker has been the quarterbacking of defenseman Keith Yandle, who was named to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game on Wednesday.

"Our power play's one of the better ones in the league, and he's the quarterback of that power play," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "It's well deserved. He's got an important role. He also brings character and leadership. He's one of our most-outspoken, vocal guys in the room, and I think the guys look up to him for that. I think it's a well-deserved honor."

Headed to his third All-Star Game, Yandle leads Florida's defensemen in points (32) and assists (26), while his 22 power-play points rank third in the NHL and first among all defensemen. Since 2008-09, the 32-year-old leads all NHL defenseman with 216 power-play points in 813 games.

"It's obviously very humbling, especially given the amount of talent there is in the game, on our team, everywhere," said Yandle, who also stands out as the league's active ironman with 753 consecutive games played. "Looking at the roster, it's one of those things where you kind of pinch yourself a little bit. Obviously I'm excited to represent our team, and hopefully there's going to be some power plays at the All-Star Game."

With Yandle running the show, the Panthers will look to crack Buffalo's fifth-ranked penalty kill (83.9 percent) and continue their recent domination of the Sabres. Florida has won each of its last seven games against Buffalo, including victories in their two previous meetings this season.

In that seven-game span, the Panthers have won by a combined score of 27-11, with Jonathan Huberdeau posting a team-best 11 points (three goals, eight assists). Evgenii Dadonov has also posted four goals in that time, including potting a pair in a 5-2 win in Buffalo back on Dec. 18.

As they look to shake out of a three-game losing streak, the Sabres will be without their leading scorer and captain, Jack Eichel, against the Panthers. Eichel, who was also named to the All-Star Game on Wednesday, leads the team with 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) in 40 games.

"Jack Eichel is day-to-day. He will not play tonight," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "We'll re-evaluate early next week."

NOTES

-- Mike Hoffman ranks first on the Panthers in goals (18) and has registered 13 points (six goals, seven assists) over his last 14 games. Leading the team with 128 shots on goal, the 29-year-old winger has been credited with at least one shot on net in 37 of 38 games this season.

-- Evgenii Dadonov ranks second on Florida in goals (17), while also leading the team in even-strength goals (11). At 29, he sits fourth on the team with 35 points, including eight goals, eight assists over his last 16 games. Since the start of last season, he's scored a team-high 45 goals.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers with 44 points (10 goals, 34 assists), including 27 over his last 18 games. The 25-year-old winger, who ranks tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring since Nov. 24, has also recorded 12 multi-point performances over his last 18 contests.

-- Aleksander Barkov has posted 11 points (four goals, seven assists) over his last eight games. Sitting second on the Panthers in points (39) and third in goals (15), the 23-year-old also ranks second in the NHL in takeaways (57) and first among forwards in ice time per game (23:09).

-- Jared McCann has notched five points (two goals, three assists) over his last seven games.

GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME

Roberto Luongo (8-7-1, 3.19 GAA, .897 SV%) vs. Linus Ullmark (8-1-3, 2.71 GAA, .922 SV%)

Luongo will return to the net after being pulled from his last start on Monday in Detroit. With more than one of his teammates saying he was "left out to dry," he surrendered three goals on eight shots before being relieved by backup James Reimer to start the second period. Prior to that game, the 39-year-old had won three of his previous five starts, allowing a total of just six goals during those three victories. Against Buffalo, he owns a 20-8-2 record with five shutouts.

After backing up Carter Hutton in each of the last three games, Ullmark is expected to slide in between the pipes against the Panthers. The 25-year-old has won each of his last three starts, including a 40-save shutout against Anaheim in his las outing on Dec. 22. In his career against Florida, he has gone 1-1-1 with a 2.97 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Frank Vatrano - Henrik Borgstrom - Mike Hoffman

Troy Brouwer - Jared McCann - Denis Malgin

Jayce Hawryluk - Juho Lammikko - Colton Sceviour

Defense

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk

Bogdan Kiselevich - MacKenzie Weegar

Goalies

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer

Scratches: Chris Wideman, Micheal Haley, Nick Bjugstad (upper body)

Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder), Jamie McGinn (back), Vincent Trocheck (ankle)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Dec. 30: D Alexander Petrovic was traded to Edmonton for D Chris Wideman and a 2019 third-round pick.

- Dec. 29: G Michael Hutchinson was traded to Toronto for a 2020 fifth-round pick.

- Dec. 15: F Henrik Borgstrom and F Jayce Hawryluk were recalled from Springfield (AHL).

HOW TO WATCH

When: Thursday, Jan. 3, 7:00 p.m.

Where: KeyBank Center - Buffalo, NY

TV: Fox Sports Florida

Stream: HERE

Florida Panthers Radio Network: 790 WAXY (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)

Watch Party: Thanks to the new "Territory on Tap" program, every road game now offers a chance for a watch party in South Florida! To see which local bars and restaurants will have drink specials and giveaways for today's game, visit the official "Territory on Tap" page!

 

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