"I think we're just playing more composed," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said of Florida's recent 8-4-0 stretch. "I think that we're playing heavier. We're harder to play against. That's some of the things that we've been stressing, especially in the offensive zone."
Of those last eight wins, all of them have come against teams holding playoff spots, including a 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday in which Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov registered his second-career hat trick, with his second goal setting the hockey world on fire.
With the game tied 3-3 late in the second period, Barkov settled down a bouncing puck and flew into the offense zone on a partial breakaway. Despite having a defender draped over his back, he pulled the puck between his legs and flipped it over Carey Price to put Florida on top 4-3.
That goal, which was named SportsCenter's top play of the night, held up as the game-winner.
"We loved it," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "He's tried it once before, and it's great to see that it worked this time. It's great to see the notoriety that we get from a play like that. Everyone's watching around the league when Barky does stuff like that."
Barkov said scoring a goal of that caliber was like a dream come true.
"Of course I'm happy with the way I scored," said Barkov, who leads the Panthers in scoring with 57 points in 57 games this season. "I've always dreamed about a score like that, and it happened last night. Now I'm going to try and create something new."
The Panthers (25-24-8) have taken two of three games from the Sabres so far this season, winning 3-2 in overtime in Sunrise on Nov. 30 and 5-2 in Buffalo on Dec. 15. On Jan. 3, the Sabres topped Florida 4-3 at home to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Panthers.
Buffalo has lost five straight at BB&T Center, scoring just nine goals in those five games.
"You kind of know what to expect going into the game, their tendencies and whatnot," said Panthers winger Frank Vatrano, who's scored a team-leading nine goals over the last 17 games. "I think right from the puck drop, no matter who you're playing, whether you played them once or you've played them three times, you've got to be ready right from the puck drop."
Vatrano said one of the biggest keys for the Panthers will be shutting down Buffalo's speedy top-line forwards, Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Eichel leads the team in scoring with 62 points, while Skinner paces the club and ranks tied for second in the NHL with 36 goals.
Skinner has four goals and one assist in three games against Florida this season.
"They obviously have that one line that does a lot of their scoring," Vatrano said. "They can make you pay for your mistakes. They have some good players throughout their lineup. For us, it's about kind of [trying to] slow down their transition and slow down their speed. They're a team that likes to play fast. For us, it's trying to be physical and playing a north-south game."
The Sabres (28-23-7) enter tonight's matchup on the heels of consecutive losses to the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers. In those games, they were outscored 10-3. Over their last 10 road games against the Panthers, they've gone 1-8-1, scoring just 19 combined goals.
"It's a team that had a great start and they fell back a little bit and now are just on the outside looking in [of the playoff picture]," Boughner said. "These games are all important to not only us, but to them. All these games sort of have a playoff atmosphere to them. They're coming off a couple losses, so we know they're going to be hungry, they're going to be ready."
With 25 games left, Florida currently sits 11 points out of a playoff spot with two games in hand.
"We're fighting for our lives right now," Vatrano said. "We're trying to play for a playoff spot right now. We know we can't take any nights off, or even any periods off. Every game is a playoff game. For us, we've got to be ready right from the puck drop."
-- Aleksander Barkov leads the Panthers in scoring with 57 points, including seven goals and 11 assists over his last 19 games. The 23-year-old center also ranks tied for second in the NHL in takeaways (78), while his 22:49 of ice time per game places him second among all forwards.
-- Mike Hoffman leads the Panthers in goals (26), power-play goals (11), game-winning goals (5) and shots on goal (180). The 29-year-old needs just four more goal to surpass his previous career-high (29, 2015-16) and achieve the first 30-goal campaign of his career. He is expected to play in his 400th NHL game tonight.
-- Keith Yandle leads all Panthers defensemen in points (45) and assists (37), while his 28 power-play points place him tied for sixth in the NHL and first among all blueliners. With Yandle quarterbacking the team's top unit, Florida's power play ranks third in the NHL.
-- The Panthers own the top-ranked penalty kill in the NHL since Dec. 29, stifling 91.8 percent (45-49) opposing power plays. In that 21-game span, defenseman Mike Matheson has logged a team-leading 46:01 of shorthanded ice time.
-- Florida has scored the first goal in 10 of its last 12 games.
GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME
James Reimer (12-10-5, 3.05 GAA, .901 SV%) vs. Linus Ullmark (13-6-4, 2.98 GAA, .910 SV%)
Reimer will make his third straight start for the Panthers. The 30-year-old backup owns a 4-2-0 record over his last six starts, posting a .928 save percentage in that span. In his career against the Sabres, he's gone 11-4-2 with a 3.09 goals-against average, .905 save percentage and one shutout. He won his only start against Buffalo this season, stopping 22 of 24 shots on Nov. 30.
Buffalo's goaltending situation will be up in the air until closer to puck drop, but there's a chance they could roll with Ullmark against Florida. The 25-year-old owns a 3-1-1 record over his last five starts, but has posted a questionable .892 save percentage in that span. In his career against the Panthers, he's gone 2-1-1 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Frank Vatrano
Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Evgenii Dadonov
Derick Brassard - Henrik Borgstrom - Denis Malgin
Jayce Hawryluk - Riley Sheahan - Troy Brouwer
Mike Matheson - Aaron Ekblad
Keith Yandle - Mark Pysyk
Ian McCoshen - Josh Brown
Scratches: Micheal Haley, Bogdan Kiselevich, Jamie McGinn
Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder), Colton Sceviour (upper body), MacKenzie Weegar (upper body)
- Feb. 18: G Samuel Montembeault was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
- Feb. 17: G Samuel Montembeault was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- Feb. 10: F Jamie McGinn was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- Feb. 8: D Bogdan Kiselevich was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- 50/50 Raffle (buy digital tickets here)
- Taco Tuesday ($3 Tacos at "Taco 'Bout It")
BITE OF BB&T CENTER
Crispy Chicken Donut Sandwich w/ Tots for $14 at "Smells like Brunch" outside section 105
HOW TO WATCH
When: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:00 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL
TV: Fox Sports Florida
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)