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Game Day Preview: Florida Panthers at Atlanta Thrashers February 25, 2011

Florida: 25-27-7 (57PTS)
Atlanta: 25-25-10 (60PTS)
Season Series: 1-2-1

The season is over. This is the reality that Panthers fans need to face. The team’s slim playoff hopes were made even slimmer when they failed to respond Wednesday night to the 5-1 drubbing the Islanders gave them on Monday. Tonight’s game is against a team they were chasing for a playoff spot only a week or so ago. The Thrashers, for their part, are still trying to catch up to ninth place Carolina, but instead are slowly losing ground. The best the Panthers can hope for is to spoil a rival’s shot. The Southeast Division has been good at that the last few seasons, with Carolina keeping the Panthers out and the Panthers wrecking both the Lightning and Hurricanes’ late season bids. Atlanta is a perfect target this year as they’re still on the playoff bubble and the Panthers play them two more times. For the fans, the best they can hope for is a good draft pick.

Last meeting: The Panthers lost 3-2 in a shootout at home on January 17. The Panthers have picked up 3 points in 4 games against the Thrashers this season. The home team has won the first four meetings and all have been one goal games.

Last game: The Panthers lost another one 5-1 to the Senators on Wednesday night while the Thrashers lost 4-1 to the Sabres. The Sabres broke their ninth place tie with Atlanta and moved to within 3 points of the final playoff spot. Jack Skille was injured late in the game and didn’t return to the lineup.

Notes: The Panthers were busy on Thursday. Besides most of the team participating in the first bag skate of Pete DeBoer’s tenure as coach, there was a lot of player movement. Cory Stillman was traded to Carolina Thursday in exchange for forward Ryan Carter and a fifth-round draft pick in 2011. Keaton Ellerby was returned to the Rochester Americans and defenseman Joe Callahan called up to replace him in the lineup. Forwards Bill Thomas and Michal Repik were called up to replace Carter and Skille. Forward Steve Bernier was placed on waivers and cleared them today. He will play in tonight’s game. Miami Herald reporter George Richards reports that Bryan Allen will replace Cory Stillman as alternate captain. Allen was (along with current alternate Stephen Weiss) an alternate during former captain Olli Jokinen‘s last season in Florida. The team announced another trade earlier today. They sent a conditional seventh round pick to Nashville for defenseman Alexander Sulzer, who is expected to play tonight.

Injuries: Jack Skille (day to day), High ankle sprain, unknown (2/23/2011). Ryan Carter (day to day), upper-body injury (2/12/2011). Dmitry Kulikov (IR), Ankle, out 2 weeks (2/11/2011). Evgeni Dadonov (IR), broken finger, out a month (2/3/2011). Shawn Matthias (IR), broken ankle, out 6-8 weeks (1/31/2011).

Starting goaltenders: Scott Clemmensen has been good against the Thrashers this season. He stopped all 16 shots he faced in relief of Tomas Vokoun on January 5 and allowed 2 goals on 30 shots in the shootout loss on January 17. Each goaltender allowed five goals in his last game. Vokoun will get the start tonight. Ondrej Pavelec will start for the Thrashers.

Lines: Between the Stillman and Frolik trades and the injuries to Skille and Dadonov, most of the people who have played on the first like with Stephen Weiss are not available for tonight’s game. Panthers broadcaster Steve Goldstein has reporter the forward lines from the morning skate as:
Higgins – Weiss – Repik
Booth – Reasoner – Dvorak
Olesz – Santorelli – Bernier
Hordichuk – Timmins – Thomas

Higgins returns to the top line with Weiss in Stillman’s place and Repik takes Skille’s place on the right side. DeBoer has shown little faith in Repik this season, but he’s been putting up assists in Rochester. Weiss and Higgins might be a good fit with him because they’re both defensively responsible, and Higgins has been scoring again. Weiss should be able to cover for any of Repik’s defensive missteps. Other changes are that Marty Reasoner and Michael Santorelli have switched lines, Bernier has moved up to the third line to replace Higgins and callup Bill Thomas has taken Bernier’s place on the fourth.

It can be reasonably expected that no matter how the game starts, Coach Pete DeBoer will throw the line combinations out the window at some point during the game. Defensive pairings should be the same as the last few games, but with Alexander Sulzer replacing Keaton Ellerby on a pair with Bryan McCabe. If Sulzer is unable to play, Joe Callahan will play in his place.

With the Panthers still freaking out about the trade deadline, expect another one with minimal effort. This is a winnable game against a team that’s also slumping, but the Thrashers are still on the playoff bubble and will want this one more. The Panthers may play spoiler in their last game against Atlanta, but all signs point to the next several games being horrific reminders of last year’s Panthers.

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