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Panthers Push Towards Playoffs, Look to Avoid 'Letdown' Against Sabres

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers will continue their fervent push towards the playoffs looking to avoid a letdown against the last-place Buffalo Sabres in the second half of a back-to-back set at BB&T Center on Friday night.

The Panthers (30-25-6) have won each of the first four games during their season-long six-game homestand, beating Washington, Pittsburgh and Toronto before securing a 3-2 win against New Jersey on Thursday night behind a pair of goals from Aleksander Barkov.

With a two-goal performance, the top-line center reached, then passed the 60-point plateau for the first time in his career. At 22, Barkov became the third-youngest player in franchise history to record 60 points in a season, joining Nathan Horton (62 points, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and Rob Niedermayer (61 points, 1995-96).

"He's one of the best players in the league every night, not just tonight," Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "I think he doesn't get enough credit. As teammates, we know what we have in this locker room and in him."

Since Jan. 2, Barkov ranks 14th in the league in scoring, posting 28 points (12-16-28) in 23 games. In the midst of his third consecutive 20-goal and 50-point campaign, the former No. 2 overall pick draft leads the Panthers in points (61) and assists (tied-38), while also sitting second in goals (23).

"Of course, it's a good thing when you set goals before the season and you want to be a better player than you were last season," Barkov said. "But we still have 20 games left and all that matters is winning. I'm glad that I've been helping the team with scoring goals and assisting them, but all that matters is winning."

The Panthers have won 11 of their last 14 games - the best winning percentage in the NHL since Jan. 30 - and trail the Columbus Blue Jackets by three points for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand.

But after playing six consecutive games against teams currently sitting in a playoff spot, Florida is well aware it can't afford to overlook the lowly Sabres, who are far more likely to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NHL than a spot in the postseason.

The Sabres (20-33-11) own the worst record in the Eastern Conference and will be missing two key players when they visit Sunrise: forward Evander Kane, who was traded to San Jose at the deadline, and defenseman Jake McCabe, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. 

Still, Buffalo has shown signs of life as of late.

The Sabres have pieced together a modest two-game winning streak against two of the best teams in the league - Boston and Tampa Bay. After a 4-1 win against the Bruins on Sunday, the Sabres remained hot, squeaking past the Lightning, 2-1, in overtime behind a power play goal from Jason Pominville.

"There was one team that looked like they are getting close to the playoffs and one team that looked like they weren't," Lighting coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the game. "Take that from there which team was which."

After starting each of the last five games - posting a 4-1-0 record with a .931 save percentage in the process - Luongo, 38, is expected to get a rest on Friday, as backup goaltender James Reimer takes his place between the pipes for the Panthers.

Reimer, 29, played an integral role in keeping Florida's playoff hopes alive when Luongo was sidelined for over two months with a groin injury, but hasn't played since a 7-2 loss in Winnipeg on Feb. 18.

Florida will have three back-to-backs remaining after Friday's tilt against Buffalo.

"You always worry about energy level and fatigue, but it's nice to be at home doing that and not on the road in a back-to-back," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "We've just got to manage our game properly tomorrow. The start's important. The shift length, the clock management, all those things.

"Buffalo's playing pretty good right now. We've got to make sure that there's no letdown and the foot is on the gas pedal. We talked about this weekend: playing three [games] in four [nights], playing good and waking up Monday and finding yourself maybe in a real good spot. It's a weekend effort here, not just tonight."

NOTES

- Jonathan Huberdeau has scored 10 goals and posted 24 points over his last 26 games played and currently ranks second on the Panthers in points (tied-57) and multi-point games (tied-14), while also sitting first in assists (tied-38) and third in goals (19).

- Keith Yandle enters tonight's contest ranking first among Florida's defensemen in points (38), assists (32) and power-play points (13), while also leading the club in total ice time (1508:03). He is one power-play point shy of 200 for his career.

- Maxim Mamin scored his second goal of the season on Thursday. The 23-year-old rookie has played very well since being recalled for a second time by the Panthers, racking up six hits while averaging just over 10 minutes of ice time over his last four games.

- Micheal Haley recorded his league-leading 17th fight of the season on Thursday -- the most fights by a Panther since Peter Worrell dropped the gloves 19 times during the 2002-03 season.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad

Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Radim Vrbata

Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Maxim Mamin

Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour

Defense

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk

MacKenzie Weegar - Alex Petrovic

Goalies

James Reimer

Roberto Luongo

Scratches: Ian McCoshen, Connor Brickley

Injured Reserve: Frank Vatrano (lower-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Feb. 14: G Roberto Luongo activated from IR

- Feb. 14: G Harri Sateri loaned to Springfield (AHL)

HOW TO WATCH

When: Friday, March 2, 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV coverage: FOX Sports Florida (check local listings)

Florida Panthers Radio Network Presented by HARD Lifestyle Beverages: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)

Where to stream it: FOX Sports GO and NHL.TV (outside state of Florida)

Tickets: https://www.nhl.com/panthers/tickets

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