"It's a huge game," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. "It's a divisional game. The standings are really tight right now. They're a couple points back [of us]. Tonight's a real big game. It's a four-point swing. We need that in our favor. It's a huge game for us to focus on."
With a 4-2 win at Carolina Saturday, Florida's winning streak reached three games. After backing up each of the last seven games, Chris Driedger stopped a career-high 42 shots, while Evgenii Dadonov, Brian Boyle, Jonathan Huberdeau and Noel Acciari all lit the lamp.
Named the NHL's "First Star of the Week" on Monday, Acciari registered a league-high seven goals last week, including back-to-back hat tricks in wins over Ottawa and Dallas. In doing so, he became just the second player in franchise history to record consecutive three-goal games.
Through 32 games, the 28-year-old forward has already set a new career-high with 12 goals.
"He had the touch this week," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Acciari, who joined the team on a three-year contract this summer. "You look back over a career and you'll say that was one week that jumped out. He had seven goals in three games, and some big ones as well."
Acciari's play really took off when he was moved up to the second line to play with Jonathan Huberdeau and Trocheck. In three games together, that trio has combined for 10 goals and 11 assists. Huberdeau, in particular, has been extra hot, posting two goals and eight assists in that span.
Averaging the third-most goals in the league (3.51), Florida has scored 17 goals over its last three games.
"Playing with those guys, it's a lot of fun," Acciari said of his new linemates. "You've just got to get open and they find you. They've really been doing that lately. It's just been a lot of fun."
After backing up in Carolina, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to return to the crease tonight for the Panthers. Over his last seven starts, he's gone 4-3-0 while registering a .943 save percentage in that span. In his first season with Florida, the 31-year-old goaltender owns a 13-9-4 record.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are expected to counter with 2019 Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has started five of the last six games. Owning a 14-9-2 record this season, the 25-year-old goaltender has gone 4-1-1 over his last six starts with a .915 save percentage.
On Dec. 10, Vasilevskiy made 27 saves to lead Tampa Bay to a 2-1 win at Florida.
"They were ready to play," Quenneville said of that game. "It was a big game going into it and I don't think we were at that competitive edge we needed to be at. We played too much in our own end; they had too much possession time… We can't expect that to be good enough tonight."
The Lightning enter tonight's matchup having dropped three of their last four contests, including a 4-3 overtime loss against Dallas on Thursday and a 3-1 defeat at Washington on Friday.
Reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is currently on a five-game point streak (two goals, four assists) and leads Tampa Bay with 37 points (12 goals, 25 assists) this season. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, meanwhile, rank first on the team with 13 goals each.
The Panthers own a 7-5-3 record on the road this season; The Lightning are 9-7-2 at home.
"You look everybody from second to sixth in our division, everybody is so close," Quenneville said. "Obviously there's a lot of hockey left and a lot to be determined, but we know these are four-point games."
-- Noel Acciari has recorded seven goals over his last three games -- including consecutive hat tricks -- and has already set a new career-highs in goals (12) and points (15) this season. The 28-year-old forward also ranks first on the Panthers in both hits (58) and blocked shots (51).
-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers and ranks tied for seventh in the league with 47 points. He also leads the team and ranks tied for third in the league in assists (34). Over his last 19 games played, the 26-year-old winger has recorded 27 points (four goals, 23 assists).
-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on Florida in points (40) and assists (29). Over his last 23 games, the 24-year-old center has notched 27 points (11 goals and 16 assists).
-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers in average ice time per game (23:45) and also paces the club's defensemen in goals (5) and plus-minus (+15). Posting five goals and 17 assists so far this season, the 23-year-old has notched three goals and nine assists over his last 14 games.
-- Mike Hoffman has posted six points (two goals, four assists) over his last eight games. The 30-year-old winger ranks tied for fourth on Florida in goals (12) and is also fifth in points (24).
-- Keith Yandle ranks second among the league's defensemen in assists (26) and power-play points (tied-15). The 33-year-old paces Florida's defensemen and ranks fourth among the league's blueliners with 30 points, including two goals and 10 assists over his last 11 games.
-- Evgenii Dadonov ranks fourth in points (26) and tied for second in goals (13) on the Panthers.
-- Vincent Trocheck has recorded four goals and eight assists over his last 17 games to push his point total on the season up to 18 (five goals, 13 assists). The 26-year-old center also ranks second on Florida in faceoff win percentage (54.1) and leads the team in takeaways (28).
-- Brett Connolly leads the Panthers with 14 goals.
Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Brett Connolly
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari
Mike Hoffman - Brian Boyle - Evgenii Dadonov
Colton Sceviour - Dominic Toninato - Mark Pysyk
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Keith Yandle - Anton Stralman
Mike Matheson - Josh Brown
Scratches: Denis Malgin
- Dec. 23: F Jayce Hawryluk was recalled from AHL Springfield.
- Dec. 17: F Ryan Haggerty was acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for F Kevin Roy.
- Dec. 11: F Jayce Hawryluk was assigned to AHL Springfield on a conditioning loan.
- Dec. 11: F Aleksi Saarela was loaned to AHL Springfield.
- Dec. 6: F Aleksi Saarela was recalled from AHL Springfield.
HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN
When: Monday, Dec. 23, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: AMALIE Arena - Tampa, FL
TV: FSF (Alternate Channels Below)
Stream: FOX Sports GO
Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming 932
Territory on Tap Locations: HERE
Official Watch Party: Bokamper's Bar & Grill in Fort Lauderdale