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Preview: Bennett on Fire as Panthers Close Out Final Road Trip in Chicago

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

With the goal to be firing on all cylinders heading into what they hope will be a very deep playoff run later this month, the Panthers will attempt to end their final road trip of the regular season on a high note when they close out their series with the Blackhawks at United Center on Saturday.

Having already punched their ticket to the postseason, the Panthers (33-14-5) are also still in the hunt for first place in the Central Division, trailing the Hurricanes (33-10-7) by two points.

"I still think we can get first place," Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said after this morning's skate. "We want to keep this momentum going into the playoffs. We want to finish strong and keep that winning attitude going into the playoffs. There's still a lot on the line here."

Earning wins in seven of their last 10 games, the Panthers kicked off their two-game set in the Windy City with a 4-3 overtime victory on Thursday. After Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair and Brandon Montour scored in regulation, Sam Bennett buried the game-winner in the extra frame.

In net, rookie goaltender Spencer Knight made 24 saves to improve to 3-0-0.

Cracking in the scoresheet in seven of eight games since being acquired from the Flames at the trade deadline, Bennett has produced 11 points (five goals, six assists), 32 shots, 26 hits and a staggering 65.22 CF% at 5-on-5 during that torrid stretch while centering the team's second line.

"He has speed in the middle of the ice, and I think that's one thing that we appreciate," Quenneville said of Bennett. "He's got some physicality as well. We find him at the net a lot. … He's adapted quickly and fit in with the team in a short amount of time. I can't say enough good things about how well he's started with us. He brings a real nice presence to our team."

Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (40) and points (58), including registering four goals and 12 assists in his last 10 games. Second on the team in scoring with 52 points, Aleksander Barkov has scored 11 goals in his last 14 games to push is team-high total to 24.

Manning the crease for the Cats, Sergei Bobrovsky will suit up tonight in Chicago. Owning a 17-8-2 record, the 32-year-old goaltender has gone 5-3-0 with a .909 save percentage over his last 10 appearances. In four starts against the Blackhawks this season, he's posted a 3-1-0 record.

In terms of other lineup changes, Quenneville said the Cats will deploy the same defensemen as they did on Thursday. On offense, Nikita Gusev will slot back in among the team's forwards, while rookies Aleksi Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko will each play in their third straight game.

"Both of them have helped in a short amount of time," Quenneville said of the two up-and-coming forwards. "They look like they belong."

Inching closer to elimination, the Blackhawks have dropped five of their last seven games - including an active three-game skid - to fall to 22-22-6 on the season. In that seven-game stretch, they've been outscored 27-20 while also going just 2-for-24 (8.3%) on the power play.

During Thursday's overtime loss to the Panthers, Adam Gaudette, Vinnie Hinostroza and Alex DeBrincat all lit the lamp, while Kevin Lankinen turned aside 35 of 39 shots. For DeBrincat, the goal, which came with 18 seconds left in the third period, was his team-best 24th of the season.

"It's nice that we didn't quit there and found a way to come back at the end of the game," Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton told reporters after the loss. "I think we had more than enough to win the game, so that leaves a sour taste not to get the two points."

Patrick Kane leads Chicago and ranks tied for fourth in the NHL with 61 points (15 goals, 46 assists), including posting one goal and six assists in his last six games. As for Hinostroza, he's recorded 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 11 games since being acquired from Florida.

Back in net for the Blackhawks, Lankinen will draw in for the seventh time this season against the Panthers. In those games, the 26-year-old rookie goaltender has gone 2-2-2 with a .911 save percentage. Overall, he boasts a 16-13-5 record with a .909 save percentage in 2020-21.

With one game left in their season series, Florida owns a 5-2-0 record against Chicago.

"I liked our last game as far as how the game progressed," Quenneville said. "Let's get something out of [tonight's game], play the right way and continue on with good habits."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 33-14-5, 71 PTS

CHI: 22-22-6, 50 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CHI: 18-20-3-7

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (24) and shots on goal (166). Over his last 15 games, he's registered 15 points, including racking up a team-leading 11 goals in that span.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (40) and points (58). Over his last 10 games, he's accumulated 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) and a league-high +14 rating.

-- Anthony Duclair has recorded 14 points (five goals, nine assists) over his last 12 games to push his point total on the season to 28. In that 12-game span, he boasts a stellar +15 rating.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads Florida's defensemen in scoring with a career-high 32 points (four goals, 28 assists). He also ranks first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points with 28.

-- Frank Vatrano ranks tied for second on the Panthers with 18 goals, including a team-leading seven game-winners. Of those 18 goals, 14 have been scored in the third period or overtime.

-- Alex Wennberg has recorded four points (two goals, two assists) over his last four games. Sitting at 13 goals on the season, he will set a new career high next time he lights the lamp.

-- Radko Gudas leads Florida and ranks first in the NHL in hits with 223.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Grigori Denisenko - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Nikita Gusev

Aleksi Heponiemi - Juho Lammikko - Noel Acciari

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky

Spencer Knight

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Ryan Lomberg, Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Anton Stralman, Chris Driedger (lower body), Mason Marchment (upper body), Carter Verhaeghe (upper body)

Taxi squad: Kevin Connauton, Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt, Brady Keeper, Sam Montembeault, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- April 28: D Brady Keeper and G Sam Montembeault were reassigned from AHL Syracuse to the Taxi Squad.

- April 26: F Grigori Denisenko and F Aleksi Heponiemi were reassigned from AHL Syracuse to the Taxi Squad.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Saturday, May 1 at 8:00 p.m. ET

Where: United Center - Chicago, IL

TV: Bally Sports Florida

Stream: Bally Sports App

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM App & Streaming Ch. 932

Pre-Game Listen: Hear from Frank "Mr. Clutch" Vatrano on the latest episode of Territory Talk!

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