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Preview: Panthers, Lightning Fight for Home Ice in Regular-Season Finale

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - Looking to claim home-ice advantage in their upcoming playoff matchup, the Panthers will close out their regular season against the Lightning at BB&T Center on Monday.

Given that the Lightning (36-16-3) hold the tiebreaker, the Panthers (36-14-5) will need to earn at least one point in the matchup to claim home-ice and the No. 2 seed in the Central Division.

"It would obviously be a great confidence booster, but I think we've been pretty great on the road this year as well," Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said. "For us, we need to beat them four times anyway if we want to go further. We want to play a full 60 minutes, we want to try our hardest, and we're going to leave it all out there, but the more important games are coming up."

Roaring into the playoffs, the Panthers have won each of their last five games, including a 5-1 beatdown of the Lightning on Saturday. With fists flying from start to finish, the intrastate rivals racked up 154 penalty minutes in the game, much to the delight of the sellout crowd in Sunrise.

In the aftermath of that heated matchup, Lightning forward Pat Maroon was suspended one game by the NHL's Department of Player Safety for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Panthers defensemen Brandon Montour and MacKenzie Weegar were each fined $5,000 for infractions.

"We're not afraid of backing each other up," Gudas said. "We play as one unit."

While the action in between the whistles was certainly engrossing, the Panthers also dominated the Lightning when the puck was in play. Led by a hat-trick performance from Alex Wennberg - his second this season - Sam Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau also found the back of the net.

In the midst of a breakout campaign after signing with Florida in October, Wennberg has already reached a new career-high with 16 goals. Re-discovering his scoring touch, that total is already one more than the number of goals he registered in 198 games over his final three seasons with the Blue Jackets.

"It's been great from the start," said Wennberg, who has also chipped in 12 assists to go with his goals. "Obviously, this year has been a little crazy. But for me to come in with this new team and get a fresh start with players and coaches, it's been a blast. … I'm excited to be even better."

Very strong between the pipes, Sergei Bobrovsky turned aside 28 of 29 shots for the Panthers in Saturday's victory, while Andrei Vasilevskiy gave up five goals on 35 shots for the Lightning.

Overall, the Cats have posted a 4-2-1 record against the Bolts this season.

"It's kind of crazy that we're going to possibly play them nine games in a row, right?" Panthers forward Mason Marchment said of ramping up the rivalry. "It's going to be a hell of a battle. They're a good team, and we're a good team. It's definitely going to be a battle, but we're ready."

After sitting out the last 13 games with an upper-body injury, Carter Verhaeghe is expected to be back on the ice for the Panthers tonight, skating alongside Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair on the team's top line. In the midst of a breakout season before being sidelined, the 25-year-old forward has tallied an impressive 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 42 games played.

Lacing up his skates in four games against the Lightning, who he won the Stanley Cup with last season, Verhaeghe has recorded two goals and two assists against his former club this season.

"We made sure that he's more than ready," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "With him, you get some energy, you get some speed, some pace and some possession. He's deceiving offensively, with a lot of ability there. He and his linemates have been very effective and dangerous all year for us."

As for other lineup notes, Montour and Bennett are both day-to-day with injuries and will miss tonight's game, but Quenneville made sure to mention that neither injury is serious. As for Patric Hornqvist, he's expected to sit out his seventh straight game while nursing an upper-body injury.

Manning the crease, Chris Driedger will get the nod for Florida. Owning a 13-6-3 record, the 26-year-old goaltender has gone 6-3-1 with a .927 save percentage over his last 10 games. In two starts against Tampa Bay this season, he's helped secure three out of a possible four points.

"I love his composure and his demeanor," Quenneville said of Driedger, who was announced as the team's nominee for the 2020-21 Masterton Trophy this afternoon. "His attitude fits right in with the group. He goes about his business in a real good and calm manor."

At the other end of the ice, the Lightning have dropped each of their last two games, following up a 5-2 defeat on Friday at Dallas with a 5-1 loss at Florida on Saturday. That being said, they have still won six of their last 10 games overall while leading 29-25 in goals during that stretch.

Bitten by the injury bug, the Lightning are currently missing several key forwards, including Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Barclay Goodrow. Additionally, former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman is also banged up and was absent for Saturday's game.

As of right now, the status of these players heading into the playoffs remains unclear.

Of course, even without those players, Tampa Bay still has plenty of weapons. Leading the charge on offense, Brayden Point ranks first on the team in scoring with 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists), while Ondrej Palat sits just behind him in second with 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists).

Yet to announce a starting goaltender, the Lightning will either go back to Vasilevskiy or turn to backup Curtis McElhinney. In contention for the Vezina Trophy, Vasilevskiy leads the league with 31 wins, but has gone 2-3-0 with a .904 save percentage against the Panthers this season.

No matter who's on the ice for the Lightning, the Panthers have their eyes on the prize.

"It's a great feeling to win these games in a row, especially late in the season going into the playoffs is great," Gudas said. "It's a great team on the other end, too. We just want to feel good, but we also want to play good. Tonight, we want to win. We feel confident in ourselves."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 36-14-5, 77 PTS

TBL: 36-16-3, 75 PTS

FLA all-time vs. TBL: 70-48-10-17

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (26) and shots on goal (174). Over his last 18 games, he's registered 20 points, including racking up a team-leading 13 goals in that span.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (41) and points (61). With two more points, he will reach 500 in his career, becoming the first player in franchise history to hit that mark.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads Florida's defensemen in scoring with a career-high 35 points (five goals, 30 assists). He also ranks first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points with 30.

-- Anthony Duclair has recorded 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) over his last 15 games to push his point total on the season to 31. In that 15-game span, he owns a team-high +19 rating.

-- Frank Vatrano ranks third 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.

-- After recording his second hat trick of the season on Saturday, Alex Wennberg reached a new career-high with 15 goals on the season. Making history, he became just the seventh player in franchise history to produce multiple hat tricks in the same season.

-- Radko Gudas leads the Panthers and ranks second in the NHL in hits with 239.

-- Keith Yandle is one point away from reaching 600 in his NHL career.

-- Florida has gone 12-2-0 over its last 14 games at BB&T Center.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Mason Marchment - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Aleksi Heponiemi

Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Grigori Denisenko

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Juho Lammikko, Nikita Gusev, Sam Bennett, Brandon Montour, Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Spencer Knight

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

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- May 4: G Philippe Desrosiers was loaned to the Taxi Squad.

- May 3: G Philippe Desrosiers was recalled from the Taxi Squad.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle

- Fan Appreciation Night

- 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: Monday, May 10 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: Bally Sports Sun

Stream: Bally Sports App

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Ch. 220 / Streaming Ch. 932

Tickets: HERE

Pre-Game Listen: Check out the first episode of "Panthers Pipeline" featuring defenseman Max Gildon.

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