Florida: 23-23-6 (52PTS)
St. Louis: 23-20-8 (54PTS)
Season Series: 0-0-0
Tonight, after a few days off, the Panthers begin their first of two late season home stands. This one is five games over two weeks, immediately followed by a road game in Tampa Bay next Saturday. The Panthers finished the second half of their six-game road trip with an overtime win in New Jersey, giving them a 2-3-1 record on the road trip. That pace is not going to cut it if the team thinks they're going to make the playoffs. General Manager Dale Tallon has given them this 5 game home stand (and presumably, the sixth game in Tampa) to prove, individually and as a team, that they have the character and skill he wants from players on his team. The Panthers are a slightly better 3-3-4 in their last 10 games, but that is still far from what they need. The team is playing without two regulars: defenseman and captain Bryan McCabe and forwards Shawn Matthias as well as rookie Evgeni Dadonov, who replaced Steven Reinprecht in the lineup around Christmas. Tonight's opponent, the St. Louis Blues, have their own playoff problems. They're currently at 14th place in the Western Conference, but because the conference is so packed are still only 7 points behind the 8th place Calgary Flames and 9 points behind 4th place Nashville. The west is still wide open for all but the top spots in the Northwest and Central Divisions. The Blues are in the second game of a two-game Florida road trip. They've started the month of February by beating the Edmonton Oilers at home and losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in overtime on Sunday. That was a close game throughout and Lightning captain Vinny Lecavelier scored the OT winner with less than 7 seconds left. The Blues are 3-5-2 in their last 10 and desperately need a good run of games to move back into the middle of the pack.
This is the only meeting between the two teams this season. The Panthers have played very well against the Blues the past several years, going 4-1-0 since the lockout and winning both of the games in Florida.
On Friday, newcomer Scott Timmins was held off the scoresheet, but Rostislav Olesz came through in overtime to win the game for the Panthers. The goal was Rusty's 5th of the year and first game-winner. Special teams were the difference for the Panthers in that game. New Jersey failed to score on 3 power play opportunities while Dennis Wideman scored his 6th powerplay goal of the year and Michael Santorelli scored shorthanded to tie the game in the third.
Cory Stillman was injured in practive yesterday and is unable to play. Michal Repik was called up from Rochester to take his place in the lineup. At the morning skate, Repik skated on the second line, with David Booth and Mike Santorelli and Rostislav Olesz took Stillman's place on the third line with Marty Reasoner and Radek Dvorak. Tomas Vokoun will get the start in goal. Injured defenseman Bryan McCabe has begun skating again, but is not cleared for contact and is still several weeks away from returning to the lineup.
This is another winnable game for the Panthers and, in fact, they're favored slightly to win tonight. They will have yet another player out to injury, but if they stick to their game and the newly rejuvenated power play can strike again they should get the start they want to this critical stretch of games.
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