Tonight the Panthers play their final game before the All-Star Break. Technically, the game is the third in a six game road trip, but given the break is really the last game of a three game trip, with another three game trip coming next week. The Panthers are 6-4-3 in January and 4-3-3 in their last 10. In last night's game against a tired Rangers squad, the Panthers were outplayed for long stretches and blew a two-goal lead, but picked up the win on a fluke goal from Mike Weaver.
The Panthers will play a Bruins squad back from a Monday night game in Los Angeles. The Bruins are 7-4-2 in January and 6-3-1 in their last 10. They are sitting at third place in the Eastern Conference, atop a weak Northeast Division. The Bruins have fewer points (61) than the two teams behind them, fourth-place Pittsburgh (66) and fifth-place Washington (63). The Panthers are in eleventh-place in the Conference and last place in a surprisingly competitive Southeast Division. They are five points behind Carolina with a game in hand and one game against remaining and six points behind Atlanta, currently sitting in the last playoff spot, with three games in hand and two against remaining. The Panthers won a crucial game last night in that the Rangers are twelve points ahead of them in the standings but the Panthers have four games in hand.
In three meetings this season, the Bruins have won three games, one in overtime. The season series is already lost, but a crucial two points in the standings are still up for grabs. Although he wasn't a factor in the previous game he played against the Panthers, Bruins forward Marc Savard is out with another concussion, picked up Sunday night in a game against the Avalanche. Former Panthers forward Nathan Horton had two assists in his first game against his former team, but none in the two following. He has one goal in January and none in his last nine games and is on pace to score fewer goals than he did last season, when he missed 17 games with a broken leg.
On the injury front, Chris Higgins and Dimitry Kulikov both returned last night and each had a point in the game. Starting goalie Tomas Vokoun returned from missing one game. Clemmensen is expected to get the start tonight because of the back-to-back games, but no one should be surprised if it's Vokoun in tonight on the strength of his 32 saves against the Rangers. If the Panthers win tonight, they will move back into tenth place ahead of the Sabres on a tie-breaker (points between the two clubs). Atlanta and Carolina both play tonight, so any gains against them won't be known until all three games are finished. Carolina is at the New York Islanders and the Thrashers are hosting the Washington Capitals.
To win tonight, the Panthers will need a solid defensive effort and continued scoring from the defense and the bottom-six. It's obvious at this point that power play goals and scoring from the top-six is imperative for the Panthers to be able to win games by more than a goal and to stave off the late third-period breakdowns. At the same time, it's also fairly obvious at this point in the season that it's not a realistic expectation and the Panthers are going to have to win games in other ways.
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