Florida: 24-24-7 (55PTS)
Visitor: 37-14-5 (79PTS)
Season Series: 1-1-0
Tonight, the Panthers host the conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers. Ever since a small incident that a few people might remember last year, these games have become a bit of a big deal for Panthers fans. The Cats need a strong performance tonight to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They haven't been as good as they've liked on the current homestand, but if they can turn in a couple of good performances this week, the start will have been good enough. The Flyers, for their part, are trying to gain some distance on both the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning and their division rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins in order to keep their home ice advantage in the playoffs.
The Panthers have done well against the Flyers the last couple of years, going 12-7-3 in the seasons since the lockout. The previous two meeting this season were in Philadelphia. The Flyers won the first meeting, but the Panthers shut the Flyers out in the second one in December. The Panthers took advantage of a sleepwalking Flyers team that appeared to be looking ahead to their Christmas break, winning 5-0. Though the Flyers got off to a slow start, the Panthers showed that they can hold a lead if they don't let up, something they have been guilty of lately.
The Panthers last played on Sunday, a home game against the San Jose Sharks. They won the game 3-2 despite being outplayed for most of the three periods. The Panthers were severely outshot for most of the game, but kept it close. They turned the offense on about midway through the period and came back from a 2-1 deficit, with Jason Garrison putting a shot in with just over two minutes to play. For once, the Cats were able to keep the late lead and sent the Sharks away empty handed. The Flyers were in Tampa last night where they blew a 3-1 lead but held on for a win in the shootout. Last night was the first game for new Flyer Kris Versteeg, obtained from the Maple Leafs in a trade earlier in the week.
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is still sidelined by the ankle injury he received in the Sabres game last week. Coach Pete DeBoer says he won't be able to skate for a week and will probably miss two weeks of games. He should be back in action around deadline day. Captain Bryan McCabe is still a game or two away from returning from a broken jaw. The team said he wont be playing today, but might play in one of the games this weekend. Joe Callahan, called up from Rochester on Saturday, will fill in, probably on a rotation similar to the one coach Pete DeBoer used on Saturday against San Jose. DeBoer will once again use the line combinations he hit upon late in the San Jose game. In that game, he broke up the veteran third line, putting each of the members on one of the top three. Cory Stillman, skating in his 1000th game tonight, will line up with Stephen Weiss and Jack Skille. Radek Dvorak will join Michael Santorelli and David Booth on the second line and Chris Higgins and Rostislav Olesz will skate with Marty Reasoner. That third line worked well together on Sunday. Although I criticize DeBoer for switching the lines up a lot sometimes, these combinations make some sense. Cory Stillman is a slow skater, but is still creating some offense. Both Weiss and Skille have some speed and Weiss can hold on to the puck. They should be able to hold the puck in the zone until Stillman can get into position. And on the third line, Olesz seems to have finally gotten the memo that they want him to park himself in front of the net, which will open up some space for Higgins and Reasoner to get some shots off. Tomas Vokoun should be the starting goaltender for the Panthers. Brian Boucher started in net for the Flyers in Tampa last night, as Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled in his two previous starts against the Panthers. Most teams would probably change the goalies up, but Peter Laviolette likes to play netminders as they're winning, so it's probably a 50% chance of seeing either guy get the start.
The Flyers are the favorites to win here, not only because of their standing at the top of the Eastern Conference. They also rank ahead of the Panthers in most statistical categories outside the penalty kill and faceoffs. However, the Panthers have shown they can not only hang with them, but can beat the Flyers on a regular basis. Provided they can remember their last game against and the new line combinations click, they should be able to eke out a win here. At the same time, the Flyers probably remember their last game against and will not want a repeat performance.
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