Tuesday vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs (30-21-6) will be kicking off a two-game swing through the Sunshine State when they hit the BB&T Center for their third meeting of the season with the Panthers. The clubs split the first two tilts (both in Toronto), but the Buds are currently red-hot, going 8-1-1 in their last ten games, including last week's 6-3 rout over the Cats. The final tussle between the two will come on April 10th in Sunrise.
Phil Kessel (30G/31A) paces the Leafs offense with 61 points, which is good for fourth in the NHL. Kessel has amassed 23 points in his last 12 games, so he is absolutely on fire right now. The Panthers also have to watch out for forwards James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, Mason Raymond and Tyler Bozak. Jonathan Bernier will be the likely starter in goal. Bernier posted his 20th win of the season in Toronto's 6-3 win over Ottawa on Saturday, and bested the Cats in last Thursday's contest.
Thursday vs. Detroit Red Wings
Like Toronto, the Red Wings (24-19-12) will also be making a pre-Olympic break trip through Florida. Detroit is currently clinging to the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers have been successful against the Wings this season, taking three of the four matches, including a 5-4 shootout win in Motown eight days ago. This will be the final meeting between the teams.
Despite missing some games due to injury, Henrik Zetterberg leads the offense with 47 points. Daniel Alfredsson and defender Niklas Kronwall are tied for second with 33 points apiece. Goaltender Jimmy Howard is back, and with the Sochi Games looming, I would expect him to get the call. The Cats beat Howard 3-2 in a shootout back on December 10th.
Friday at Carolina Hurricanes
The Panthers will conclude the week on the road in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Olympic break means Florida will not play again until February 27th, when they host the Washington Capitals. The Hurricanes (25-20-9) are only one point out of a playoff spot, and will be looking for a big win to keep pace with the other serious Eastern Conference postseason contenders. The Panthers fell 3-2 on the road to their former Southeast Division rival in the first meeting between the clubs. They will hook up for the final time this year on March 27th, at the BB&T Center.
Eric Staal tops the Canes in scoring with 44 points, while Jeff Skinner is the team's leading goal-scorer with 23. Alexander Semin, Nathan Gerbe, and Jordan Staal have also fired in double-digit goals. Cam Ward is finally back from injured reserve, so the Cats will be shooting at him or 12-4 apprentice Anton Khudobin, who has done a very impressive job filling in.
So how do you see this week shaking out for the Panthers? The Cats limped to a disappointing 1-3 record on the road last week, and need some wins just to stay on the outer fringe of the playoff hunt. Don't forget to make your thoughts known by voting in LBC's weekly poll. Last week, only three voters managed to read the tea leaves correctly.