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Panthers Host Blackhawks, Look to Make Up Ground in Standings

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Looking to make up some ground in the standings, the Florida Panthers will kick off a back-to-back set against the Chicago Blackhawks at BB&T Center on Saturday night.

Following their 5-3 loss to the Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Panthers (33-25-6) currently sit four points behind Toronto (34-23-8) for third place in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand.

"Another big game for us," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said after Friday's practice. "They keep getting bigger. I know last night was certainly a disappointing game… We're really chasing them now. But there's a lot of hockey left, and we control our destiny. We still have to find a way to recapture some of that winning recipe on home ice. It's going to be a test against Chicago."

Leading 3-1 lead against the Maple Leafs, the Panthers went on to surrender four unanswered goals in one of their harder to swallow losses of the season. But with one game in hand and a final head-to-head matchup with Toronto remaining, their playoff hopes are still very much alive.

Mike Hoffman scored his team-leading 26th goal of the season on Thursday, giving him goals in each of the last four games. The 30-year-old winger also enters tonight's tilt looking to extend a torrid six-game point streak in which he's notched five goals and three assists for eight points.

In 12 career games against Chicago, Hoffman has posted nine points (four goals, five assists).

After making 24 saves against the Maple Leafs, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to make his third straight start for the Panthers. Over his last five games, the 31-year-old goaltender has gone 3-2-0 with a .920 save percentage. In 13 career games against Chicago, he owns an 8-4-1 record.

"We need to respond from the loss at home there and get some wins here going on home ice," Panthers forward Colton Sceviour said. "Everyone kind of needs to focus on what they can do to get ready for the game."

The Blackhawks (28-28-8) have dropped nine of their last 12 games, but are coming off a very impressive 5-2 win at Tampa Bay on Thursday. Against the Lightning, rookie Dominik Kubalik scored three goals in the third period to pick up his first-career hat trick and lock down the win.

"I'm really happy that it happened," Kubalik told reporters. "I have no idea [what's clicking]. I would like to know as well. I'm just trying to do the same thing, be around the net. I've been lucky."

A seventh-round pick (191st overall) in the 2013 draft, Kubalik, 24, leads both the team and all NHL rookies with 29 goals this season, including a whopping 18 over his last 22 games alone.

"They're coming off an emotional win last night in Tampa Bay," Quenneville said. "They've got some top-notch hockey players over there that we know what they're capable of. Be respectful of what they're able to do, but let's come in and play the right way and capture a win at home."

While Kubalik has certainly given Chicago a shot in the arm, the team is still fueled by a familiar face in Patrick Kane. In the midst of his 13th NHL season, the 31-year-old veteran leads the club in scoring with 78 points (28 goals, 50 assists), including nine points over his last seven games.

After stopping 36 shots in Tampa Bay, veteran Corey Crawford could potentially man the crease for the fifth straight game tonight in Sunrise. Over his four starts, the 35-year-old netminder has gone 2-2-0 with a .927 save percentage. In 11 career appearances against Florida, he owns an 8-2-0 record with a .939 save percentage, 1.77 goals-against average and a pair of shutouts.

In the only previous meeting between the two clubs this season, Frank Vatrano netted his second-career hat trick to guide Florida to a 4-3 road win over the Blackhawks on Jan. 21.

"We know what to expect," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. "They're a team where you know what you're going to get. They've got high-end skill, but they work hard. Obviously it's a big game for us. You want to get the win for Q [Quenneville]. For us, it's just getting it dialed in for a six o'clock start."

Like Yandle mentioned, puck drop for tonight's game will commence at 6 p.m. (an hour earlier than the team's usual 7 p.m. starts at home). And on Sunday, they'll have another out-of-the-ordinary start time when they close out their important back-to-back against Calgary at 4 p.m.

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads Florida and ranks tied for nine in the league with 77 points (22 goals, 55 assists). He's also tied for fourth in the league in points on the power play with 29. Over his last eight games, the 26-year-old winger has registered three goals and six assists.

-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in scoring with 62 points (20 goals, 42 assists) -- his third straight seasons with at least 60 points. With two more goals, the 24-year-old center will move into a tie with Scott Mellanby for the second-most goals in team history (157).

-- Evgenii Dadonov ranks second on Florida in goals (25) and fourth in points (46).

-- Keith Yandle ranks first among Panthers defensemen with 45 points (five goals, 40 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 862nd consecutive regular-season game tonight.

-- Noel Acciari ranks tied for fourth on Florida with a career-high 20 goals. The 28-year-old also leads the team in hits (112) and sits first among the all of the league's forwards in blocks (93).

-- Aaron Ekblad ranks second among Panthers defensemen in scoring with 39 points, including a career-high 34 assists. With just one more point, he'll set a new career-high. Also leading the team in ice time per game (22:56), the 24-year-old has posted 18 points at home this season.

-- Frank Vatrano has registered four points (one goal, three assists) over his last six games.

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Noel Acciari

Frank Vatrano - Erik Haula - Mike Hoffman

Brett Connolly - Lucas Wallmark - Evgenii Dadonov

Aleksi Saarela - Colton Sceviour - Mark Pysyk

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Mike Matheson

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Sam Montembeault

Scratches: Dominic Toninato, Josh Brown, Dryden Hunt (lower-body)

Injured Reserve: Chris Driedger (lower-body), Brian Boyle (upper-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Feb. 26: G Chris Driedger was assigned to AHL Springfield on a conditioning loan.

- Feb. 24: D Emil Djuse was acquired from Dallas in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

- Feb. 24: F Erik Haula, F Lucas Wallmark, F Eetu Luostarinen and D Chase Priskie were acquired from Carolina in exchange for F Vincent Trocheck.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle with Guaranteed Pot of at Least $29,000 

- Territory Takeover (Palm Beach)

- BB&T Takeover Night

- Territory Memberships are On Sale Now!

- Players Favorite Things Baskets at the Panthers Foundation Table outside Club Lexus

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Saturday, Feb. 29, 6:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FSF

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: 99.9 WKIS-FM HD-2 (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM 220 / Streaming 932

Tickets: HERE

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