I was a little off track with last week's article as the Detroit game should have been included in that piece. To err is human, and I must have taken a wayward glance at the ol' calendar and thought the tilt fell on Monday instead of Sunday. Oh well, in addition to forcing an early publication of this week's edition, my boo-boo worked out in one respect as we can now look at all four games on the Panthers' trip north together.
Sunday at Detroit Red Wings
The Panthers open the four-game trek against the Red Wings (23-18-10) in the Motor City. Detroit has won two in a row and is currently holding down the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth. The teams have met three times this season, with the Cats taking the first two. The Wings won the last meeting in Sunrise 4-3 on December 28th. The last time Florida managed to score a power-play goal was during that game.
Henrik Zetterberg leads Detroit with 40 points in 44 games. The Wings are getting a needed boost offensively from youngsters Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist. With Jimmy Howard on injured reserve, look for Jonas Gustavsson to get the start. The Monster is 13-3-2 with a 2.39 GAA this season. Petr Mrazek is serving as the backup with Howard out.
Tuesday at Boston Bruins
The big, bad Bruins (31-15-3) will be opening a four-game homestand when the Panthers come calling on Tuesday evening. Florida will catching the B's right after a Monday night matchup against the Islanders in Uniondale, so they should have the better legs. The Bruins are a perfect two for two against the Panthers this season. Those games came early in the campaign when Kevin Dineen was still coaching the Cats, including the 4-1 B's win that was the final straw for GM Dale Tallon.
Czech forward David Krejci is the Bruins top scorer with 40 points. Sophomore Reilly Smith has potted 16 goals and amassed 37 points since coming over from the Dallas Stars as part of the Tyler Seguin deal. Workhorse Tuukka Rask posted the two wins against Florida, but could get spelled by Chad Johnson if he gets the start Monday against the Isles.
Thursday at Toronto Maple Leafs
The Panthers will hit the Centre of the Hockey Universe for a second time this season for Thursday's tilt at Toronto's ACC. Scott Clemmensen backstopped the Cats to an impressive 3-1 win here in the opening meeting between the new division rivals back on December 17th. The Maple Leafs (27-21-6) will be in the middle of a three-game homestand that sees fellow Floridians, the Tampa Bay Lightning visit before the Panthers arrive.
Phil Kessel paces the potent Buds offense with 27 goals and 54 points. James van Riemsdyk has notched 20 goals, while Joffrey Lupul, Mason Raymond and Nazem Kadri have all scored in the teens. The Cats will be shooting at either Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer in goal. Bernier looks to have established himself as the clear number one, and Reimer took the loss the first time around, so my money's on seeing the former King.
Saturday at Columbus Blue Jackets
The week long trip concludes with Saturday night's clash against the surging Columbus Blue Jackets. This will be the first of three meetings between the teams this season. They will meet in the Ohio capital on March 1st, and again in the season-finale for both clubs at the BB&T Center on April 12th. The Blue Jackets (26-21-4) won a franchise-record eight in a row, before last night's loss to the Buffalo Sabres, to rocket up the standings into a playoff spot.
Third-year center Ryan Johansen leads the Jackets with 19 goals and 37 points. Summer free agent signing (and former Panther) Nathan Horton has returned from IR to score 4 goals in 11 games. The Cats will have to defeat a red-hot Sergei Bobrovsky, last year's Vezina winner, to come out of Columbus with a win. If the Panthers get a break and "Bob" gets the night off, Curtis McElhinney will get the call.
This is going to be a very difficult trip for the Panthers. The game against Detroit is pretty much a must win and things don't get any easier after that, with the next three opponents also holding down playoff spots as of right now. A losing record over the next four could end any illusions the Cats have of capturing a wildcard spot. They are going to need to be at their best to survive this stretch. Make your thoughts about the upcoming week known by voting in the LBC poll.