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Panthers End Road Trip with Battle in Pittsburgh

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The Florida Panthers will look to do a better job of burying their chances when they close the book on a back-to-back set against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday.

Dropping two of the first three games on their four-game road trip, the Panthers enter today's matchup on the heels of a 3-2 loss at Buffalo on Saturday. Prior to that, they had won 6-3 in Ottawa on Thursday, but opened up their trek with a 4-1 loss against Columbus on Tuesday.

In both of those losses, Florida generated plenty of scoring opportunities, but either didn't get the bounces they needed or couldn't get enough traffic around the net for potential deflections and rebound attempts - an area head coach Joel Quenneville wants to see them improve in.

"We talked earlier today that the theme was get to the net, get inside," Quenneville said after yesterday's loss to the Sabres. "We got zone time, but the looks, with [the goaltender] seeing pucks, were not challenging to the level that we're looking for."

Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov also echoed that assessment, saying that, "We could've done a better job to get to the net and shoot more pucks and do a good job in front of the net."

Dominating the possession game against Buffalo and Columbus, the Panthers owned massive combined advantages in shot attempts (137-77) and scoring chances (57-28) in those defeats. Against the Sabres, they also finished with a 34-18 edge in shots on goal.

"It's one of those games where you look back and you feel like you played a decent game, but if a couple of those shots had gone in we'd been feeling much different," said Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson, who has four goals and three assists over his last 12 games. "At the end of the day they didn't, so we need to find ways to be better and to bury those chances when we get them."

Very much in the thick of the playoff hunt heading into the second half of the season, Florida is two points behind Philadelphia for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with one game in hand. They also trail Tampa Bay by three points for third place in the Atlantic Division.

Fueling the team's fourth-ranked offense (3.51 goals per game), Jonathan Huberdeau, who was named the NHL's "First Star of the Month" for December, paces the club in goals (T-17), assists (39) and points (56), while Barkov ranks second in scoring with 45 points (13 goals, 32 assists).

In their only previous meeting with the Penguins this season, Huberdeau and Barkov combined for one goal and three assists to help lead the Panthers to a 4-2 win in Sunrise back on Oct. 22.

Later this month, Huberdeau will head to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis.

"It's a great honor to be in the All-Star Game for the first time," said Huberdeau, who is in his eighth season with Florida. "I think I'm playing well this year, points are coming in. I'm just really happy. I think it's a great experience and I'm looking forward to it."

At 25-11-5, the Penguins, who reside in second place in the Metropolitan Division, are currently on a five-game point streak and have picked up the win in eight of their last 10 contests overall.

Owning the league's seventh-ranked offense (3.39 goals per game), Pittsburgh has managed to continue piling up the points despite dealing with various injuries to key players throughout this season. Already without Sidney Crosby, they lost Jake Guentzel to a shoulder injury this week.

Prior to the injury, Guentzel, a 2020 NHL All-Star, led the team in goals (20) and points (43).

"We have good leadership," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "They're a resilient group."

Helping fill the void left by those injuries, Bryan Rust has recorded 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in his past 11 games. Evgeni Malkin, meanwhile, has notched at least one point in 10 of his last 11 games, racking up five goals and 12 assists in that span to push his point total to 39.

The NHL's "Second Star of the Month" in December, goaltender Tristan Jarry could get the nod in net for the Penguins. The 24-year-old, who served as a backup during the club's 3-2 overtime win at Montreal on Saturday, has earned the win in 12 of his last 15 appearances, going 12-2-1.

As for the Panthers, they could roll with backup Chris Driedger. The 25-year-old stopped all 11 shots he faced after coming into yesterday's game at Buffalo in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky. In five games this season, he owns a 3-1-0 record with a .938 save percentage and one shutout.

Florida is 8-8-3 on the road this season; Pittsburgh is 16-4-3 at home.

"It's the last game of our road trip, which hasn't gone exactly the way we wanted it to," Matheson said. "The best medicine for that is to get back at it next game and make sure that we bury every chance we get."

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Vincent Trocheck is expected to suit up in his 400th NHL game tonight. A Pittsburgh native, the 26-year-old center has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in his last 23 games. He also leads Florida in takeaways (34) and is tied for second on the team in faceoff win percentage (53.4).

-- Noel Acciari has recorded nine goals over his last 10 games -- including a pair of hat tricks -- and has already set a new career-highs in goals (14) and points (17) this season. The 28-year-old forward also ranks first on the Panthers in hits (70) and blocks (62).

-- Keith Yandle ranks fourth among the league's defensemen in assists (28) and also sits in a tie for second in power-play points (17). The 33-year-old leads Florida's defensemen and ranks tied for sixth among the league's blueliners in scoring with 32 points (four goals, 28 assists).

-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers in ice time per game (23:08). The 23-year-old also ranks first among the club's defensemen in goals (5) and second in assists (18) and points (23).

-- Evgenii Dadonov ranks tied for first on Florida in goals (17) and sits third in points (33). Over his last eight games, the 30-year-old winger has recorded nine points (five goals, four assists).

-- Jonathan Huberdeau needs just four points to tie Olli Jokinen for first place on Florida's all-time scoring list (419). The 26-year-old winger already owns the all-time assists record (273).

-- Colton Sceviour enters tonight's matchup on a three-game point streak in which he's posted two goals and one assist. The 30-year-old winger also leads the Panthers in shorthanded shots (8) and averages the second-most shorthanded minutes on the team per contest (2:31).

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Mike Hoffman

Brett Connolly - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari

Frank Vatrano - Dominic Toninato - Evgenii Dadonov

Colton Sceviour - Brian Boyle - Mark Pysyk

Defensemen

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Mike Matheson - Josh Brown

Goalies

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Jayce Hawryluk, Denis Malgin, MacKenzie Weegar (injured)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Dec. 27: D Riley Stillman was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Dec. 23: F Jayce Hawryluk was recalled from his conditioning loan with AHL Springfield.

- Dec. 17: F Ryan Haggerty was acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for F Kevin Roy

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Sunday, Jan. 5, 5:00 p.m. ET

Where: PPG Paints Arena - Pittsburgh, PA

TV: FSF

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); SiriusXM Streaming 932

Territory on Tap Locations: HERE

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