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Preview: Knight Gets the Nod as Panthers Battle with Blackhawks

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

Already locked into a playoff spot, the Panthers will turn to rookie goaltender Spencer Knight when they open up a two-game series against the Blackhawks at United Center on Thursday.

The 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Knight, who only just turned 20 years old back on April 19, has looked incredibly calm and collected throughout his first two appearances with the Panthers, posting a 2-0-0 record while turning aside 42 of 43 shots for a .977 save percentage.

"Knighter earned it," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the decision. "Two nice outings."

Punching their seventh ticket to the postseason in franchise history, the Panthers rode a four-goal third period to a 7-4 win in Nashville on Tuesday. Dominating possession throughout the game, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov each scored a pair of goals, while Owen Tippett, Frank Vatrano and Anthony Duclair also touched the twine as Florida fired off 55 shots.

Coming into the game in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky, Knight went a perfect 9-for-9 on saves.

"He's very poised," Panthers forward Noel Acciari said of Knight, who was suiting up at Boston College a little over a month ago. "Shooting on him, he's a bigger goalie and takes up more of the net. But what's impressed me is just his poise in net. He looks so comfortable out there."

Winning six of their last nine games, the Panthers currently occupy second place in the Central Division with a record of 32-14-5 and trail the Hurricanes by two points for the coveted top spot. Still fighting for seeding at this point, the Cats want to keep their foot on the gas.

"We want to be playing our best hockey going into the playoffs," Acciari said. "We know we clinched, but at the same time we want to be playing the same hockey that's got us here."

Putting up five points on the Predators for the second time this season on Tuesday, Huberdeau increased his team-leading total to 57. Barkov, meanwhile, ranks just behind him in scoring with 52 points and has accumulated 16 goals in his last 20 games to push his team-high total to 24.

As it stands now, the Panthers are the only team with two 50-point scorers in the division.

"He's an unbelievable player," Acciari said when asked about Barkov's season. "Last year he was great for us and this year he's taken it up another notch, which I didn't think was possible. He's a special player. ... He's got all the tools and uses them really well. It's really fun to watch."

In sixth place in the division with a record of 22-22-5, the Blackhawks have dropped four of their last seven games, including a 7-4 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday. In defeat, Brandon Hagel, Wyatt Kalnik, Duncan Keith and Dominik Kubalik all set off the red light for Chicago, while Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban each surrendered three goals while splitting time in the crease.

Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring with 60 points (15 goals, 45 assists), while Alex DeBrincat paces the team and ranks 10th in the NHL with 23 goals. In six games against the Panthers so far this season, that duo has combined for 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

Acquired from Florida earlier this month, Vinnie Hinostroza has gotten off to a hot start during his second stint with Chicago. Entering tonight's tilt on a three-game point streak, the 27-year-old forward has produced nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 10 games since the trade.

Making his sixth start against the Panthers this season, Lankinen is expected to be between the pipes for the Blackhawks. Owning a 16-13-4 record with a .910 save percentage, the 26-year-old rookie goaltender has gone 2-2-1 with a .914 save percentage against Florida this season.

With only two games remaining against Chicago, Florida owns a 4-2-0 record in the season series, but has dropped the last two head-to-head matchups after winning each the first four.

"We want to keep playing the right way until the end," Quenneville said when asked about the mindset down the home stretch. "It's not an on and off switch here. We want to make sure that we continue on doing what we do, playing the right way and having fun along the way doing it."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 32-14-5, 69 PTS

CHI: 22-22-5, 49

PTS FLA all-time vs. CHI: 17-20-3-7

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (24) and shots on goal (165). Over his last 14 games, he's registered 15 points, including racking up a team-leading 11 goals in that span.

-- The only player to ever record two five-point games with the Panthers, Jonathan Huberdeau posted two goals and three assists in Tuesday's in over the Predators. Leading the Panthers in scoring with 57 points, he also ranks first on the team in assists (39) and power-play points (22).

-- Anthony Duclair has recorded 13 points (four goals, nine assists) over his last 11 games to push his point total on the season to 27. In that 11-game span, he boasts a stellar +14 rating.

-- Since coming over from Calgary at the trade deadline earlier this month, Sam Bennett has produced 10 points (four goals, six assists) and 20 hits over his first seven games with Florida.

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

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads Florida's defensemen in scoring with a career-high 30 points (four goals, 26 assists). He's also tied for first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points (27).

-- 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.

-- Radko Gudas leads Florida and ranks first in the NHL in hits with 218.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Aleksi Heponiemi - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Grigori Denisenko

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Owen Tippett

Ryan Lomberg - Juho Lammikko - Noel Acciari

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Spencer Knight

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Patric Hornqvist, Matt Kiersted, Nikita Gusev, 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: Thursday, April 29 at 8:00 p.m. ET

Where: United Center - Chicago, IL

TV: NBC Sports Network

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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