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Panthers Clash with Kings, Go For Sweep of California Portion of Trip

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

The Florida Panthers will go for a clean sweep of the California portion of their road trip when they wrap up a back-to-back against the Los Angeles Kings at STAPLES Center on Thursday.

After opening up their five-game trek through the Western Conference with a win in San Jose on Monday, the Panthers once again took care of business in Anaheim on Wednesday, beating the Ducks by a score of 4-1 to leapfrog idle Toronto and capture third place in the Atlantic Division.

Over their past two games, the Panthers (32-22-6) have outscored the opposition 9-4.

"I just like our energy," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "There's positive energy in the locker room and on the ice, on the bench. We're having fun. We're playing for each other. That's the way we want to play. We're getting wins, and there's nothing better than winning games."

After having a goal taken off the board and then falling behind 1-0 against the Ducks, Barkov swung momentum back in Florida's favor when he took a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and lifted a shot into the net to tie the game 1-1 with 4.1 seconds left on the clock in the first period.

With the game evened up heading in into the second, Vincent Trocheck put the Panthers up 2-1 before rookie Aleksi Saarela, who was recalled from AHL Springfield on Tuesday, scored the first goal of his NHL career to increase the lead to 3-1 heading into the final 20 minutes of play.

"It felt good," said Saarela, who was originally a third-round pick of the New York Rangers in the 2015 NHL Draft. "I was lucky to get that bounce off the wall. I had an empty-netter, so it was kind of easy… I just tried to get the puck to the net when I saw that it was I wide-open net."

Acquired in a trade with Chicago back in October, Saarela made his NHL debut and suited up in three games with the Panthers in December before being sent down to the AHL to polish his all-around game. In 43 games with Springfield, the 24-year-old registered 12 goals and 19 assists.

Overall, Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said Saarela has shown marked improvement.

"He had a good game today," Quenneville said. "He's progressed a lot since the last time we saw him. I think he's got more pace to his game. He's finding the puck more. He's got a tricky shot and got a fortunate bounce as well… I think he really enhances his position on our team."

After MacKenzie Weegar cashed in on an empty-net goal to make it 4-1 with 2:09 remaining in regulation, Sergei Bobrovsky shut the door in net to earn his 22nd win of the season. And after making 35 saves in Anaheim, it's possible the 31-year-old goes again tonight in Los Angeles.

No stranger to starting both halves of back-to-back sets -- a feat he pulled off as early as two weeks ago -- Bobrovsky is 2-0-0 with a .941 save percentage over his last two starts. If Florida ends up giving him the night off, however, look for rookie Sam Montembeault to man the crease.

In 12 appearances this season, Montembeault owns a 5-3-1 record.

"These are big games for us," Bobrovsky said after earning first-star honors against the Ducks. "I thought as a team, we gave a good effort. We got timely goals, guys sacrificing in the [defensive] zone. It was solid, and it was fun, too. Winning is fun. You just have to continue working with each other."

While the Panthers look towards the playoffs, the Kings are peering into the future.

Sitting in last place in the Pacific Division at 21-34-5, Los Angeles has dropped 11 of its last 14 games and has already begun to sell off assets prior to Monday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline. After moving forward Kyle Clifford and backup goalie Jack Campbell earlier this month, forward Tyler Toffoli and defenseman Alec Martinez were both shipped out in separate deals this week.

That being said, the Kings certainly still pose a threat entering tonight's matchup. Like a wild animal with its back against the wall, you really don't know what the team is capable of. Anze Kopitar, who leads the team with 53 points (17 goals, 36 assists) is still there, as well as goalie Jonathan Quick, who owns a 1-1-0 record with a .945 save percentage over his last two starts.

Los Angeles' fire sale has also opened the door for players like Gabriel Vilardi to make their mark. Selected in the first-round (11th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft, the 20-year-old forward was recalled from the AHL earlier today and is expected to make his NHL debut against Florida.

In 32 games with AHL Ontario this season, Vilardi posted 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists).

"I find teams in that spot, they are changing the complexion of their team," Quenneville said when asked about the transition the Kings are going through. "Whether it's before or after the deadline, they can go on some runs. They say there is not a lot of pressure there, but they are playing the games and having fun with it. They can get momentum off that and be dangerous."

Florida has won each of its last three tilts against Los Angeles, including a 4-3 win in Sunrise on Jan. 16.

"We got a great test ahead of us," Quenneville said of the playoff push. "We've got 22 [games] to go in a great race. There's probably a lot more things that can develop as you go through it, but this is the time of the year as a player that you want to be in. You want to put yourself in a position to play meaningful games at the end of the year."


-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in scoring with 58 points (18 goals, 40 assists). With a goal in Wednesday's win at Anaheim, the 24-year-old center tallied the 153rd goal of his career, moving him past Pavel Bure for the third-most goals in franchise history.

-- A 2020 NHL All-Star, Jonathan Huberdeau leads Florida and ranks tied for 10th the league with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists). The 26-year-old winger also ranks first on the team in assists (51), points, even-strength points (46) and power-play points (26).

-- Mike Hoffman ranks second on the Panthers in goals (22), third in points (48) and first in shots (174). Since Jan. 1, the 30-year-old winger leads the team in scoring with 21 points.

-- Evgenii Dadonov leads Florida in goals (24), goals on the road (15) and power-play goals (10). Of his 43 points (24 goals, 19 assists), 24 (15 goals, nine assists) have come on the road.

-- Noel Acciari ranks fourth on Florida with a career-high 19 goals. In addition to his offensive numbers, the 28-year-old forward also ranks first among the league's forwards in blocks (88).

-- Keith Yandle ranks first among Panthers defensemen with 41 points (five goals, 36 assists), marking the seventh straight season he's hit the 40-point plateau. The NHL's active "Iron Man," the 33-year-old is expected to suit up in his 858th consecutive regular-season game tonight.

-- Vincent Trocheck has recorded seven points (three goals, four assist) over his last eight games. The 26-year-old center ranks first on Florida in takeaways (47) and third in hits (80).

-- Aaron Ekblad ranks second among Panthers defensemen in scoring with 35 points, including a career-high 30 assists. Leading the team in time on ice per game (22:53), the 24-year-old is currently riding a four-game point streak in which he's racked up five assists.

-- MacKenzie Weegar has produced three points (one goal, two assists) in his past four games.



Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Noel Acciari

Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Mark Pysyk

Frank Vatrano - Aleksi Saarela - Evgenii Dadonov

Brett Connolly - Dominic Toninato - Colton Sceviour


MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Josh Brown


Sergei Bobrovsky

Sam Montembeault

Scratches: Brian Boyle (upper-body), Mike Matheson (illness)

Injured Reserve: Chris Driedger (lower-body)


- Feb. 20: F Danick Martel was acquired from Tampa Bay in exchange for F Anthony Greco.

- Feb. 19: F Mason Marchment was acquired from Toronto in exchange for F Denis Malgin.

- Feb. 18: F Aleksi Saarela was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Feb. 17: F Jayce Hawryluk was claimed on waivers by Ottawa.

- Jan. 30: G Sam Montembeault and D Riley Stillman were recalled from AHL Springfield.


When: Thursday, Feb. 20, 10:30 p.m. ET

Where: STAPLES Center - Los Angeles, CA



Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys) 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming 932

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