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Preview: Acciari Returns as Panthers End Homestand vs. Hurricanes

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - After missing the last eight games while recovering from a lower-body injury, feisty forward Noel Acciari is expected to make his long-awaited return to the lineup when the Panthers wrap up a five-game homestand against the Hurricanes at BB&T Center on Monday.

Out of action since Feb. 13, Acciari plays an integral role on Florida's fourth line and penalty kill, often putting himself in harm's way to help the team. In 12 games this season, the 29-year-old leads the team in blocks per 60 minutes (6.15) and average shorthand ice time per game (2:58).

"He gives you some versatility defensively -- assignments, faceoffs, kills," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said when asked about Acciari's impending return after this morning's skate. "He brings energy and purpose to our team game. I liked how we played in his absence, but at the same time you know you're getting a guy who's very useful when he returns."

With Acciari back in the fold, the Cats will look to bounce back from a 4-3 shootout loss to the Hurricanes on Saturday. Trailing 2-0 early in the third period, Jonathan Huberdeau, Frank Vatrano and Patric Hornqvist all scored to get the game to overtime and secure a crucial point.

Entering tonight's matchup with a 13-4-3 record and tied with the Lightning (14-4-1) for the most points in the Central Division with 29, the Panthers have mounted more than a few comebacks this season, leading the league with eight wins in games in which they surrender the first goal.

"These games aren't easy coming back from behind," Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said. "It's exciting coming back, but it's definitely not what we want… I think starting off strong coming out of the gate hard, fast and physical is what we need to do tonight."

Yet to drop consecutive games this season, the Panthers can also improve to 7-0-0 following losses with a win over the Hurricanes. When asked about the team's knack for bouncing back last week, Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said being "pissed off" has helped quite a bit.

"I think this year it's almost unacceptable for us [to lose two games in a row]," Weegar said. "We know how good of a team we are right now. It's really starting to show for us. It's just unacceptable. If we go down a game, the big goal this year is to not lose two in a row.

"If we don't lose two in a row, it sets us up in a great position at the end of the year. It just keeps things rolling. It keeps everybody in good spirits, keeps everything light around the room. That's what we've been noticing. Barky's absolutely right, guys are getting pissed off after losses."

With Anthony Duclair expected to miss "about a week" with a lower-body injury, Quenneville said that another speedster, Frank Vatrano, will be moving up to the top line tonight to play with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. Finding the back of the net in each of the last two games, Vatrano ranks second on the Panthers in even-strength goals (6) and third in shots (57).

"He's scoring some big goals for us, bringing some pace," Quenneville said of Vatrano. "In the past, he did have some stretches where he played with Barky. When he did, it seemed like there was chemistry there... On a need basis, let's see how he handles some nice ice time."

After backing up Sergei Bobrovsky in each of the last two games, Chris Driedger is expected to return the crease against the Hurricanes. In 10 appearances this season, the 26-year-old has been very steady between the pipes, posting a 7-2-1 record on top of a .928 save percentage.

With a solid one-two punch forming in net, Bobrovsky has also been very sharp in recent starts, stopping 92 of 99 shots for a .929 save percentage while going 1-1-1 over his last three outings.

"I think both goalies have been playing great for us," Weegar said. "Whether it's Bob or Driegs, we know we've got a great goaltender back there. We're very comfortable with either of them."

After losing three straight games to Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes, who reside in fourth place in the division with a record of 13-6-1, snapped out of a three-game skid with Saturday's win over the Panthers. In victory, Vincent Trocheck, Warren Foegele and Jake Bean all touched twine.

Trocheck leads Carolina with 10 goals and is locked in a three-way tie with Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho for the most points (17). With a balanced attack up front, the Hurricanes own the league's eighth-ranked offense (3.25 goals per game) and sixth-ranked power play (27.7%).

Per Carolina's website, Alex Nedeljkovic is expected to get the start in net. In five games this season, the 25-year-old goaltender has gone 2-2-1 with a .914 save percentage. During his lone start against Florida this season, he stopped 33 of 37 shots in a 4-3 overtime loss on Feb. 17.

"Their lines are balanced," Quenneville said of the Hurricanes. "They've got three lines that can check and score. They play a fast team game. Whether it's Troch or the other two guys in the middle who are very useful, they're going to keep you busy."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 13-4-3, 29 PTS

CAR: 13-6-1, 27 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CAR: 51-50-11-14

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads Florida in scoring with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists). In 25 career games against Carolina, the 27-year-old winger has recorded nine goals and 15 assists.

-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in points (21) and tied for second in goals (8). Over his last eight games, the 25-year-old center has registered four goals and five assists.

-- Aaron Ekblad leads Florida's defensemen in goals (6) and power-play goals (3). With one more power-play goal, he'll pass Robert Svehla (26) for the most by a blueliner in franchise history. A workhorse, the 25-year-old also leads the club in average ice time per game (25:13).

-- Patric Hornqvist leads the Panthers in both goals (9) and power-play goals (5). Over his last eight games, the 34-year-old forward has accumulated seven points (three goals, four assists).

-- Keith Yandle leads Florida's defensemen in scoring with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) and also sits second on the team in points on the power play with nine (one goal, eight assists).

-- Radko Gudas leads the Panthers and ranks second in the league with 100 hits.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads Florida's defensemen in even-strength points with 10 (one goal, nine assists), including registering six points (one goal, five assists) over his last eight games.

-- Over the last seven games, the Panthers have posted a league-leading 276 shots on goal.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Carter Verhaeghe

Jonathan Huberdeau - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Mason Marchment - Eetu Luostarinen - Owen Tippett

Ryan Lomberg - Juho Lammikko - Noel Acciari

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Keith Yandle - Anton Stralman

Kevin Connauton - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Gustav Forsling (lower body), Vinnie Hinostroza

Taxi squad: Grigori Denisenko, Brett Connolly, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Markus Nutivaara (upper body), Anthony Duclair, Noah Juulsen

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- March 1: F Owen Tippett and D Riley Stillman were recalled from Florida's Taxi Squad; F Brett Connolly was loaned to Florida's Taxi Squad; F Noel Acciari was activated off IR; F Anthony Duclair and D Noah Juulsen were placed on IR.

- Feb. 25: F Mason Marchment and D Kevin Connauton were recalled from Florida's Taxi Squad; F Owen Tippett was loaned to Florida's Taxi Squad; F Grigori Denisenko was reassigned from Syracuse (AHL) to Florida's Taxi Squad; D Markus Nutivaara was placed on IR.

- Feb. 24: D Max Gildon was reassigned from Syracuse (AHL) to Bakersfield (AHL); D Tommy Cross was assigned to Providence (AHL).

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle

- A limited number of fans will be admitted to BB&T Center for home games this season. Learn about the health and safety precautions that have been taken as a part of the "Red Reminders" program presented in conjunction with Baptist Health South Florida at FloridaPanthers.com/RedReminders.

- Mobile Ordering is now available at BB&T Center for Panthers games. Visit FloridaPanthers.com/MobileOrdering for all the info.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Monday, March 1 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FOX Sports Florida

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: 790 WAXY (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys) 107.9 FM / 1370 AM WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM CH. 221 / Streaming 932

Tickets: HERE

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