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Preview: Knight Expected to Make NHL Debut Against Blue Jackets

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Panthers will peer into what looks to be a very bright future between the pipes when they wrap up a back-to-back set with the Blue Jackets on Tuesday at BB&T Center.

After serving as Sergei Bobrovsky's backup during Monday's 4-2 win over Columbus, highly-touted goaltending prospect Spencer Knight is now expected to make his NHL debut tonight.

"He has handled some big situations and he has handled them like, 'Hey, it's the next challenge in life,'" Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Knight. "He has done everything he can to prepare for this opportunity. As an organization, we're looking forward to it as well."

Taken by the Panthers with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Knight inked his entry-level contract on March 31 after going 16-4-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts as a sophomore during his final season with Boston College.

Making headlines in January, the Darien, Connecticut native also backstopped Team USA to a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. Honored as USA's top player during the gold-medal game, he stopped all 34 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over powerhouse Canada.

Standing 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Knight is known for his exceptional positioning in the crease, which allows him to make even the most difficult saves look routine on regular occasion. And even though he only just celebrated his 20th birthday, both he and his game are very mature.

"It's obviously right in front of me, but I'm going to try and take it in day by day and not really try and look at what's next," Knight said after putting pen to paper on his entry-level contract last month. "I think it's very important to stay in the present and realize these are moments people look back on and cherish for the rest of their lives. I'm trying to enjoy every single minute of it."

With Knight drawing in, the Panthers will look to make it six in a row against the Blue Jackets. In Monday's victory, Frank Vatrano, Sam Bennett and Radko Gudas all found the back of the net, while Bobrovsky stopped 34 of 36 shots that came his way to improve to 17-7-2 on the season.

After opening the scoring in the first period, Vatrano capped off the win with an empty-net goal. Lightning the lamp with seven goals in his last 10 games, the 27-year-old forward has been on fire in recent weeks. Tied for second on the Panthers with 17 goals, he sits just one off the team-lead.

"He's a shooter," said Gudas, who has two goals in his last four games. "He's fun to watch. He's been great for us. I'm really happy the way the puck goes in for him. He shoots it really hard."

Also heating up, Anthony Duclair enters tonight's matchup riding a six-game point streak in which he's registered three goals and four assists for seven points. Despite missing roughly two weeks with an injury, he's notched two goals and three assists in four games since returning.

"I'm playing with some great players," said Duclair, who has been lining up with Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau on Florida's second line. "The acquisition of Bennett was huge for us. He's a big force down the middle. Huby is obviously one of the best playmakers in the league."

Improving to 29-12-5 with Monday's win, the Panthers are currently tied with the Hurricanes (29-10-5) for the most points in the Central Division. And with two head-to-head matchups slated for later this week, Carolina holds a tiebreaker over Florida due to having played two fewer games.

That being said, the Cats know they have to first take care of business against the Blue Jackets.

"For every game from here on out until the end, we have a playoff mentality," Duclair said of the road ahead. "We all know that. We're still battling for the first spot in our division. For us, it doesn't matter who we play, we're motivated to keep going and build some good habits."

Not yet eliminated, but also likely no longer in the hunt for a playoff spot, Columbus has lost 12 of its last 15 games to fall to 15-23-9 on the season and is currently mired in a six-game skid. Struggling at both ends of the ice, they've been outscored 55-30 during that 15-game stretch.

Oliver Bjorkstrand leads the Blue Jackets in scoring with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) and has racked up five goals in seven games against the Panthers this season, including a tally in Monday's loss. Behind him, Cam Atkinson ranks second with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists).

"I know some people might think we've given up, but we're still playing for pride and jobs and we're getting assessed," Blue Jackets forward Zac Dalpe told the team's official website. "We're all competitive for a reason. We're all at this level for a reason. I don't like losing and I know nobody else does. I think If we stay the course with what we got and keep pushing, I know it's easier said than done but I think that's something we have to do."

After backing up Elvis Merzlikins last game, Joonas Korpisalo will likely get the nod in net for Columbus tonight. Owning a 9-12-7 record with a .896 save percentage, the 26-year-old goaltender has gone 1-3-2 with a .882 save percentage over his last eight appearances.

The finale of their season series, the Panthers own a 6-0-1 record against the Blue Jackets.

"The guys have done a great job pulling for each other and getting the victories," Gudas said when asked about the uptick in intensity down the stretch. "They start piling up and piling up. I think everybody is feeling better and better, and the chemistry is developing more and more."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 29-12-5, 63 PTS

CBJ: 15-23-9, 39 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CBJ: 16-14-10

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (18) and shots on goal (148), while also ranking second in points (45). Over his last nine games, he's accumulated five goals and three assists.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in scoring with 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists). On a four-game point streak, he's produced one goal and three assists in that span.

-- Sam Bennett has registered one goal and two assists in two games with the Panthers since being acquired from the Flames at the trade deadline. Dating back to his time in Calgary, he's currently riding a six-game point streak, notching one goal and seven assists in that span.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads all Panthers defensemen in scoring with a career-high 25 points, while also ranking tied for second among all NHL blueliners in even-strength points with 23.

-- Patric Hornqvist ranks fifth on the Panthers in goals (14), including eight on the power play.

-- Radko Gudas leads Florida and ranks second in the NHL in hits with 204.

-- Markus Nutivaara has recorded four assists over his last four games.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Mason Marchment - Aleksander Barkov - Nikita Gusev

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Anthony Duclair

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Juho Lammikko - Lucas Wallmark - Owen Tippett

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Goaltenders

Spencer Knight

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Ryan Lomberg, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Chris Driedger, Eetu Luostarinen, Carter Verhaeghe (upper body), Noel Acciari (upper body), MacKenzie Weegar (upper body)

Taxi squad: Kevin Connauton, Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- April 17: F Cole Schwindt and F Scott Wilson were reassigned from AHL Syracuse to the Taxi Squad; F Aleksi Heponiemi, D Lucas Carlsson and D Brady Keeper were reassigned from the Taxi Squad to AHL Syracuse.

- April 14: D Brandon Montour and D Noah Juulsen were activated to Florida's active roster.

- April 13: F Sam Bennett and F Nikita Gusev were added to Florida's to active roster; F Anthony Duclair was activated from IR; F Lucas Wallmark and G Spencer Knight were recalled from the Taxi Squad; D Kevin Connauton was loaned to the Taxi Squad.

- April 12: The Panthers acquired F Sam Bennett and 2022 sixth-round pick from Calgary in exchange for F Emil Heineman and a 2022 second-round pick.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle

- Truly Tuesday

- A limited number of fans will be admitted to BB&T Center for home games this season. Learn 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: Tuesday, April 20 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: Bally Sports Sun

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Ch. 219 / Streaming Ch. 932

Tickets: HERE

Pre-Game Listen: Check out the first episode of "Around the NHL," featuring interviews with TSN's Ray Ferraro and ESPN's Emily Kaplan!

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