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Panthers Look to Claim 'Big Points' in Matchup with Kings

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - It's never too early to start looking at the standings.

While there's still almost half a season left to play, the grueling grind towards the postseason has already begun for the Florida Panthers. And with the Los Angeles Kings stopping by BB&T Center on for a tilt on Thursday night, players know another crucial two points is up for grabs.

"They're big points," Panthers winger Brett Connolly said. "It seems like one day you're in the playoffs and then another day you're not. It's been a grind to stay in the pack… Every game is so important. (Tonight's) a big game before we go on our last road trip before the break."

After opening up their four-game homestand with a 5-2 loss to Arizona, the Panthers have since played some of their best hockey of the season over the last two games. Following a 5-2 victory over Vancouver on Jan. 9, they scored a season-high eight goals in Sunday's win over Toronto.

Entering today's action, Florida (24-16-5) trails Philadelphia by three points for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand. Similarly, they also sit just three points back of the Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand.

"You obviously don't want to look too far ahead, but we've got a couple games before a long break," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. "Especially in this one at home, we've got to come out hard, play the way that we did in our last two games. I thought our compete-level was really good in those games. We've been having good starts and playing a full 60 minutes."

Indeed, the Panthers have been coming out hot as of late.

They've scored three goals in the first period in each of their last two wins, including touching twine twice within the first four minutes in both outings. More good starts would certainly go a long way, as Florida is 19-2-2 when scoring first and 12-1-3 when leading after 20 minutes.

In their win over the Maple Leafs, seven different skaters lit the lamp and 13 registered at least one point. And, by picking up a goal and an assist, All-Star winger Jonathan Huberdeau moved past Olli Jokinen to claim the franchise's all-time scoring lead with the 420th point of his career.

One of the main cogs of Florida's second-ranked offense (3.62 goals per game), Huberdeau leads the team and ranks tied for seventh in the league with 61 points (18 goals, 43 assists). In his last 13 contests, the 26-year-old winger has racked up 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists).

"Better starts, better consistency in our game," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the club's recent stretch. "We have more compete, more consistency in our shift-to-shift. When we're rolling four lines, it seems like everybody's been doing a lot of the same stuff, which is what we want."

With starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky dealing with an upper-body injury, the Panthers are expected to roll with backup Chris Driedger against the Kings. Stopping a career-high 43 shots against Toronto, the 25-year-old backup has been very reliable when called upon this season.

In eight appearances with Florida, Driedger, who was recalled from AHL Springfield on Nov. 25, owns a 5-2-0 record with a 2.40 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and one shutout.

"He's done a good job when he's been in the net," Quenneville said of Driedger, who had not started an NHL game before this year. "He's gotten some big points for us, big wins. I think he's ready to start the game. He's comfortable no matter how big the stage or what the stage is."

The Kings (18-25-5), meanwhile, have lost five of their last six games and enter tonight's matchup on the heels of a 4-3 shootout loss at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. In that game, Los Angeles saw a late 3-2 lead slip through their fingers as Nikita Kucherov scored with 1:15 left in regulation force the extra frame.

In the shootout, Jonathan Quick surrendered goals to Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.

"There were a lot of ups and downs. (The Lightning) are a very creative, quick-attacking team. I think they got the best of us in some situations, but we fought back and worked our way to a lead with a big power-play goal," Kings coach Todd McLellan told reporters after the game. "Disappointed at the end that we couldn't close it out, but fairly good effort."

Up front, Anze Kopitar leads the Kings in goals (16), assists (24) and points (24). Behind him, Tyler Toffoli ranks second with 27 points, while Drew Doughty and Alex Iafallo both have 26.

After stopping 35 of 38 shots against Tampa Bay, Quick could be back between the pipes in Sunrise tonight. Over his last seven contests, the 33-year-old netminder owns a 1-5-1 record with a .904 save percentage. In his career against Florida, he's gone 8-4-0 with one shutout.

"They're a hardworking team," Quenneville said of Los Angeles. "They're straight-ahead. They go to the net, hang around those areas and look for those type of battles. There's not a lot of time and space when they're working hard… They can beat anybody."

The Panthers have won each of their last two meetings with the Kings.

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on Florida in assists (35) and points (49). Over his last 21 games, the 24-year-old center has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists). With one more point, he'll break a tie with Stephen Weiss (394) for third place on the franchise's all-time scoring list.

-- Keith Yandle ranks tied for fourth among the league's defensemen in assists (30) and is also tied for fourth in power-play points (18). The 33-year-old leads Florida's defensemen and ranks eighth among the league's blueliners in scoring with 34 points (four goals, 30 assists).

-- Evgenii Dadonov leads Florida in goals (19) and also ranks third in points (36). The 30-year-old winger has at least one point in nine of his 12 last games, scoring seven goals in that span.

-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers in ice time per game (23:03) The 23-year-old also ranks first among the club's defensemen in goals (5) and second in both assists (19) and points (24).

-- Noel Acciari has scored 12 goals over his last 13 games, pushing his total on the season to a career-high 17. The 28-year-old also leads Florida and ranks first among the league's forwards in blocks (70). Additionally, he also leads the team in hits (82), including 24 in his last 10 games.

-- Vincent Trocheck has notched two goals and 11 assists over his last 14 games. The 26-year-old center enters tonight's tilt on a four-game point streak in which he's tallied one goal and five assists. He also leads the Panthers in takeaways (39) and faceoff win percentage (54.9).

-- Mike Hoffman enters tonight's matchup on a season-high, four-game goal streak and a six-game point streak (five goals, three assists) -- his second six-game point streak of the season. The 30-year-old winger leads the Panthers in shots (124) and is tied for second in goals (18).

-- Florida ranks third in the league for home wins (15) and first in goals scored at home (99).

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Brett Connolly - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari

Frank Vatrano - Dominic Toninato - Mike Hoffman

Jayce Hawryluk - Brian Boyle - Colton Sceviour

Defensemen

Mike Matheson - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Josh Brown

Goalies

Chris Driedger

Sam Montembeault

Scratches: Mark Pysyk, Denis Malgin, Sergei Bobrovsky (upper-body)

Injured Reserve: MacKenzie Weegar (upper-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Jan. 15: G Sam Montembeault was recalled from AHL Springfield on emergency conditions.

- Jan. 13: G Sam Montembeault was loaned to AHL Springfield.

- Jan. 12: G Sam Montembeault was recalled from AHL Springfield on emergency conditions.

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

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle

- Jonathan Huberdeau 2020 NHL All-Star Game Poster Giveaway Upon Egress

- $5 Beer Thursday

- JetBlue Takeover Night

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Thursday, Jan. 16, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FSF

(Alternate Channels Below)

DTV: 654-1

AT&T: 721 | AT&T HD: 1721

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM 210/Streaming 932

Tickets: HERE

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