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Preview: Panthers 'Focused and Ready to Go' for Rematch with Canes

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

With the playoff race heating up, the top spot in the Central Division will be on the line when the Panthers close out their two-game series with the Hurricanes at PNC Arena on Thursday night.

Atop the division with a record of 26-10-4, the Panthers currently hold a slim one-point lead over the Hurricanes (26-9-3) and a two-point cushion over the Lighting (26-11-2) in the standings.

"The standings are very close," Panthers forward Noel Acciari said. "We need a big bounce-back game. We want to split with them for these two games to just kind of hold our lead in the standings. Everyone in the locker room knows it's a big game. We're focused and ready to go."

In a heated game that almost had a playoff-like feel to it, the Panthers saw their winning streak end at six games with a 5-2 loss in Raleigh on Tuesday. A deceiving final score, the Hurricanes led by just a single goal late in the third period before cashing in on back-to-back empty-netters.

Heading into the final 20 minutes of regulation leading 2-1 thanks to a pair of goals from captain Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers saw their advantage disappear just 45 seconds into the third period on a power-play goal from Dougie Hamilton. A little over eight minutes later, Jordan Staal then scored what would go on to hold up as the game-winner to send the Hurricanes ahead 3-2.

With three of their five meetings going beyond regulation, Florida's record against Carolina this season currently sits at 1-2-2 as the line between victory and defeat continues to be razor thin.

"I think we've got a pretty good idea of where we're at and where they're at," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the matchup. "They're a good hockey team. We're playing a stretch of games here where we like the way we're playing.

"You've got to make sure that everybody brings it and that consistency of being reliable and dependable, be it on the back end, up front, having the puck, keeping it and protecting it, all the little things that add up. We know that we've got to be at our best to win these types of games."

After pocketing a pair of goals on Tuesday, Barkov moved into a tie with Jonathan Huberdeau for the team-scoring lead with 42 points. Finding his way onto the scoresheet in 14 of his last 16 games, Barkov has erupted to the tune of 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in that torrid stretch.

In three games since his return from injury, Barkov has produced three goals and two assists.

"There's not a big difference on the ice between the two teams," Barkov said of facing the Hurricanes. "Both teams are playing really well and not giving much. All five games have been tight. I expect all the other games are going to be tight, too. We've just got to find a way to win."

Alternating between their two goaltenders over the past few weeks, Chris Driedger will get the nod in net for the Panthers after backing up Sergei Bobrovsky on Tuesday. Posting shutouts in three of his last five starts, Driedger has gone 4-1-0 with a .959 save percentage in that span.

Overall, Driedger is 11-4-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.

"It doesn't matter who's in net for us, we know we're going to get those big stops," Acciari said. "Bob and Driegs have been making highlight-reel stops left and right every game. We want to play well in front of them so they don't have to do that every night. It gives us more confidence."

Not long after the team left the ice this morning, the Panthers made another trade prior to Monday's deadline, sending Riley Stillman, Brett Connolly, prospect Henrik Borgstrom and a 2021 seventh-round pick to the Blackhawks in exchange for Lucas Wallmark and Lucas Carlsson.

Wallmark, who suited up in seven games with the Panthers last season after being acquired from Carolina at the deadline, has posted three assists in 16 games with Chicago this season, while Carlsson has appeared in 12 games in the NHL and seven games in the AHL in 2020-21.

"It's exciting that we're making that push," Acciari said when asked about the trade. "Whoever leaves we're going to miss them, and whoever we bring in we're going to welcome them."

Winners in six out of their last eight games, the Hurricanes have benefitted greatly from the return of their top goaltender. After missing more than two months with an injury, Petr Mrazek has stopped 62 of 64 shots for .969 save percentage to go 2-0-0 in two starts since his return.

On Thursday, he made a season-high 34 saves against the Panthers.

That being said, reports from Carolina's website note that Alex Nedeljkovic is expected to get the start tonight. Owning an 8-4-2 record, the 25-year-old goaltender has gone 1-0-1 in two games against the Cats this season, turning aside 77 of 83 shots for a .928 save percentage.

Riding an 11-game point streak in which he's registered six goals and nine assists, Vincent Trocheck ranks tied for second on the Hurricanes in scoring with 31 points. Also tied for the team-lead in goals with 15, he's lit the lamp in all five matchups against Florida this season.

Sebastian Aho sits first on the team in scoring with 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists), while Hamilton is tied for second with 31, which also places him fifth among NHL defensemen.

"We're coming off a game disappointed that we didn't win," Quenneville said. "Still have that appetite going into every know game knowing the importance of every single shift in big games like this, all of a sudden they get magnified. That's when hockey gets even more enjoyable."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 26-10-4, 56 PTS

CAR: 26-9-3, 55 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CAR: 51-52-11-15

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Jonathan Huberdeau is tied for first on the Panthers in scoring with 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists). In 28 career games against Carolina, he's produced 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists).

-- Carter Verhaeghe ranks first on Florida in goals (17) and third in points (33). Of his 33 points, 30 of them have been tallied at even-strength, which are tied for the seventh-most in the league.

-- MacKenzie Weegar ranks tied for first among NHL defensemen in even-strength points with 23. Over his last 17 games, he's racked up 14 points (two goals, 12 assists).

-- Patric Hornqvist ranks fifth on the Panthers in goals (12), including seven on the power play.

-- Alex Wennberg has posted eight points (six goals, two assists) over his last 13 games, including scoring the first hat trick of his career during a 5-2 win over Columbus on April 3.

-- Frank Vatrano has accumulated five points (three goals, two assists) in his last four games.

-- Radko Gudas leads the Panthers and ranks first in the NHL in hits with 185.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Mason Marchment - Aleksander Barkov - Carter Verhaeghe

Jonathan Huberdeau - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Frank Vatrano - Noel Acciari - Owen Tippett

Eetu Luostarinen - Juho Lammikko

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Matt Kiersted - Anton Stralman

Markus Nutivaara

Goaltenders

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Lucas Wallmark, Ryan Lomberg, Brady Keeper, Spencer Knight

Taxi squad: Kevin Connauton, Aleksi Heponiemi, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body), Anthony Duclair (upper body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- April 8: D Brady Keeper and G Spencer Knight were recalled from the Taxi Squad; The Panthers acquired F Lucas Wallmark and D Lucas Carlsson from Chicago in exchange for F Brett Connolly, F Henrik Borgstrom, D Riley Stillman and a seventh-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

- April 5: The Panthers re-signed F Mason Marchment to a one-year contract extension; D Vladislav Kolyachonok was reassigned from Minsk (KHL) to Syracuse (AHL).

- April 3: F Patric Hornqvist was activated from IR; D Matt Kiersted was recalled from the Taxi Squad; G Spencer Knight was assigned to the Taxi Squad.

- April 2: Florida acquired F Brad Morrison from Chicago in exchange for F Vinnie Hinostroza.

- April 1: The Panthers signed D Matt Kiersted to a two-year, entry-level contract.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Thursday, April 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: PNC Arena - Raleigh, NC

TV: Bally Sports Florida

Stream: FOX Sports GO

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

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