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Preview: Panthers and Hurricanes Battle for 1st Place

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - With a chance to claim sole possession of first place in the Central Division, the Panthers will kick off a two-game series with the Hurricanes at BB&T Center on Thursday.

Entering tonight's matchup with wins in 10 of their last 14 games, the Panthers (30-12-5) are currently locked into a tie with the Hurricanes (30-10-5) atop the division with 65 points. That said, Carolina owns a slight edge at the moment due to having two games in hand on Florida.

Overall, the Hurricanes have taken five of six games from the Panthers in the season series.

"This is our last chance to make a statement against them and take advantage of the opportunity to enhance where we're at," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think they're in the driver's seat as far as the extra games in hand, and we lost key some points to them, valuable points. … Every game has been close and competitive. We expect that here tonight."

On a three-game winning streak, the Panthers are coming off a 5-1 win over the Blue Jackets on Tuesday. With rookie Spencer Knight stopping 33 of 34 shots in his NHL debut, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennett, Ryan Lomberg and Jonathan Huberdeau provided all of the goal support.

Centering a line with Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair, Bennett has gotten off to quite the hot start in South Florida after coming over from Calgary at the trade deadline. In three games since the deal went down, the 24-year-old has tallied five points (three goals, two assists) and 14 hits.

With his linemates also flourishing, Duclair is currently riding a seven-game point streak in which he's recorded three goals and seven assists, while Huberdeau has picked up two goals and five assists during his active five-game point streak to increase his team-leading point total to 49.

Asked about the team's new-look second line, Quenneville noted "they're having a lot of fun."

"I think that line's really clicked," Quenneville said. "Huby has some great play recognition and patience with the puck, and Duke's got some speed. [Bennett] seems to be getting to the net. He's been useful at putting the puck in good areas so they can do their thing with the puck."

Returning to the crease after getting a rest on Tuesday, Sergei Bobrovsky will get the nod in net for the Panthers. Tied for sixth in the NHL with 17 wins, the 32-year-old veteran has gone 5-2-0 while turning aside 219 of 237 shots for a shiny .924 save percentage in his last seven outings.

On the blue line, the Cats should also get a nice boost with the return of MacKenzie Weegar, who missed the last two games with an upper-body injury. Paired with Gustav Forsling, Weegar averages more than 22 minutes per game and has already set a career-high with 25 points.

Of those points, a whopping 23 have come while at even-strength.

"He's had a heck of a year," Quenneville said of Weegar. "That pairing has been solid for us. [Carolina] has got three very dangerous lines, and I'm sure he'll be busy tonight keeping an eye on whatever line he's up against. He obviously gives us a lot of options -- moving the puck, offensive zone, our zone, and offensively as well. Important minutes. Happy to have him back."

Winning three of their last six games, the Hurricanes rode a three-goal second period to a 4-1 win at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal, Steven Lorentz and Jordan Martinook all lit the lamp against the Lightning, while Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 26 of 27 shots.

Sebastian Aho leads Carolina in goals (18) and points (41), while Vincent Trocheck ranks second in scoring with 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists). Finding a lot of success against his former team, Trocheck has scored six goals in six games against Florida so far this season.

Yet to announce a starting goaltender, the Hurricanes will either go back to Nedeljkovic or turn to Petr Mrazek in net. Starting two of the last three games, Nedeljkovic has gone 11-4-2 with a .932 save percentage this season, while Mrazek has gone 5-1-2 with a .939 save percentage.

"We know how they play, and they know how we play," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "It's going to be a tough battle for both teams. It's a huge game. We've been battling for that first spot in the division, and this is the team we have to win against. A huge two games."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 30-12-5, 65 PTS

CAR: 30-10-5, 65 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CAR: 51-53-11-15

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (19) and shots on goal (149), while also ranking second in points (46). Over his last 10 games, he's accumulated six goals and three assists.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in scoring with 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists). In 29 career games against the Hurricanes, he's recorded 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists).

-- Sam Bennett has tallied three goals and two assists in three 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 seven-game point streak in which he's posted three goals and seven assists.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads all Panthers defensemen in scoring with a career-high 25 points, while also ranking tied for fourth 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 tied for first in the NHL in hits with 207.

-- Anthony Duclair enters tonight's matchup riding a seven-game point streak in which he's amassed three goals and seven assists. In 34 games this season, he's registered 24 points (six goals, 18 assists), with all but one of those points being recorded while at even-strength.

-- Frank Vatrano has lit the lamp seven times over his last 11 games to move into a tie for second on the Panthers with 17 goals, including a team-leading six game-winning scores.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Nikita Gusev - Aleksander Barkov - Patric Hornqvist

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Anthony Duclair

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Ryan Lomberg

Eetu Luostarinen - Juho Lammikko - Owen Tippett

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky

Spencer Knight

Scratches: Lucas Wallmark, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Anton Stralman, Chris Driedger (lower body), Marchment (upper body), Carter Verhaeghe (upper body), Noel Acciari (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.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle 

- $5 Beer Thursday

- 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: Thursday, April 22 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: Bally Sports Sun, ESPN+

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. 223 / Streaming Ch. 932

Tickets: HERE

Pre-Game Listen: On the latest episode of the Territory Talk podcast, The Athletic's Sara Civian helps preview a crucial series between the Panthers and Hurricanes.

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