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Preview: Panthers Look to Clinch Playoff Berth in Nashville

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

With a chance to qualify for the postseason for just the seventh time in franchise history, the Panthers will kick off a back-to-back set with the Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Monday.

Entering tonight's slate of games, there are two possible scenarios by which the Panthers can punch their ticket, according to the number crunchers at the NHL. The easiest of the two routes, however, is if they simply handle things themselves by defeating the Predators in any fashion.

Still in the hunt for first place in the Central Division, the Panthers (31-13-5) also currently trail the Hurricanes (31-10-6) by just one point for the top spot. Complicating things just a little bit in that race, Florida can also qualify for the playoffs if Carolina defeats Dallas in regulation tonight.

But before they worry about seeding, the Panthers are focused on just getting into the dance.

"Our goal at the beginning of the year was to be a playoff team, and then after that finish as high as we can," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think that all year long we were in that position where, hey, just keep doing what we're doing [because] we're where we want to be."

Earning wins in five of their last seven games, the Panthers are fresh off their biggest -- in more ways than one -- victory to date. After coming up just short in six of seven games in their season series, the Cats got the last laugh with a 4-3 overtime win over Carolina on Saturday in Sunrise.

Trailing 3-1 in the third period, Gustav Forsling scored to pull the Panthers to within a goal. After that, Alex Wennberg jammed home a shorthanded goal to make it 3-3 and force overtime. Only 24 seconds into the extra frame, Aleksander Barkov scored a no-look goal to lock in the 4-3 win.

Leading the team with 22 goals, Barkov has scored 14 times in his last 18 games and enters tonight's matchup riding a three-game goal streak. Also heating up, Jonathan Huberdeau has pocketed at least one point in each of his last seven games to push his team-high total to 52.

Just after this morning's skate, Huberdeau was named the NHL's "Third Star of the Week" after leading the league with seven points (one goal, six assists) during the week ending April 25.

"He's a special, special talent," Panthers forward Frank Vatrano said of Huberdeau. "When he's on his game, I don't think anyone can stop him. The way he sees the ice, the way he makes plays, he's got that competitive edge to him. He scores goals, makes the big-time plays."

While we won't know exactly what lineup the Panthers are rolling out until closer to puck drop, Quenneville did mention that both Noel Acciari and Lucas Wallmark will be slotting back in. A key player both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill, Acciari, who missed the last five games with an upper-body injury, has registered four goals, seven assists and 59 blocked shots this season.

Making his second straight start, Chris Driedger will man the crease in the Music City. Owning a 13-5-3 record, the 26-year-old netminder has been giving Nashville's scorers fits this season. In two head-to-head battles, he's gone 2-0-0 while stopping 45 of 46 shots for a .978 save percentage.

"We put the work in, had some additions to our club this year, and we were a good team from the start," Vatrano said. "We went through a little bit of bumps in the road there, but we battled all year long. Obviously, this year's completely different from most years. If we clinch tonight, that's great. But we've got to play the same way no matter if we clinch or we don't clinch."

Holding a two-point lead over the Stars for fourth place in the Central Division, the Predators have won four of their last seven games, including a 3-1 victory at Chicago on Friday. In the win, Ryan Johansen, Luke Kunin and Erik Haula all lit the lamp, while Juuse Saros made 29 saves.

On offense, Filip Forsberg and Roman are tied atop Nashville's scoring leaderboard with 29 points apiece, while Mikael Granlund and Calle Jarnkrok have each scored 12 goals. Forsberg, however, won't suit up tonight as he is considered "week-to-week" due to an upper-body injury.

Expected to make his seventh straight start, there's no question that Saros has been the key behind the renewed playoff hopes for the Predators. Owning a 17-9-1 record with a .926 save percentage, the 26-year-old goaltender has been on top of his game for over a month. Dating back to March 23, he boasts an 11-3-1 record with a .939 save percentage and two shutouts.

"Juice, juice [Saros] really impressed me tonight," Johansen said after Friday's victory. "He was a stud. They had some looks early on and he was in total control throughout the game."

Overall, the Panthers have taken four of six games from the Predators this season.

"To play competitive hockey towards the end here, these are the games you want to be in," Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said when asked about the chance to clinch a playoff spot. "[You want to] make sure that the tools are sharpened before everything gets started."

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 31-13-5, 67 PTS

NSH: 26-21-2, 54 PTS

FLA all-time vs. NSH: 19-10-3-6

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (22) and shots on goal (158), while also ranking second in points (49). Over his last five games, he's found the back of the net four times.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in scoring with 52 points (16 goals, 36 assists). In six games against the Predators this season, he's produced 10 points, including scoring six goals.

-- Sam Bennett has tallied three goals and three assists in his first five games with Florida.

-- After posting a career-high four points (one goal, three assists) in Saturday's win over the Hurricanes, MacKenzie Weegar increased his career-high point total to 29. Of those points, 26 have come at even-strength, which are tied for the second-most among all NHL defensemen.

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

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

-- Anthony Duclair has recorded 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in his last nine games.

-- Frank Vatrano has lit the lamp seven times over his last 13 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

Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Nikita Gusev

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Anthony Duclair

Lucas Wallmark - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Noel Acciari - Juho Lammikko - Owen Tippett

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Ryan Lomberg, Eetu Luostarinen, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Anton Stralman, Spencer Knight, Mason Marchment (upper body), Carter Verhaeghe (upper body)

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

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- April 26: F Grigori Denisenko and F Aleksi Heponiemi were reassigned from AHL Syracuse to the Taxi Squad.

- 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.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Monday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m. ET

Where: Bridgestone Arena - Nashville, TN

TV: Bally Sports Florida

Stream: Bally Sports App

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

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