FLORIDA PANTHERS: 24-15-11 (59 PTS.) vs. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: 22-23-5 (49 PTS.)
GAME TIME: 7:00 P.M.
OPPOSITION SITE: BOLTS BY THE BAY
Maybe the All-Star break came at a perfect time. For all the moaning and groaning we did without any hockey to watch for seven days last week, it apparently was the best thing to have happened for our Florida Panthers. They’ve played two difficult games against division opponents and have come out on top in both. Beating Washington and Winnipeg in regulation has allowed the Panthers to not only get back into first place in the Southeast, but they’ve also not given any points to these two teams that are chasing the same thing: the division crown.
It won’t get any easier tonight as the Panthers take on state rival the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. A win tonight by the Panthers will equal their longest winning streak of three and will give Florida 61 points after this final matchup against the Lightning. While January was a model of inconsistency, and December was similar, coach Kevin Dineen likes what he sees overall. He had these comments after last nights victory over Winnipeg:
“If you look at our record in the last two months (9-8-7), so many tight games, close games, I like the idea that we’re building up some resiliency and some character,”
“I think that will pay up for us down the line. We’d like to have a game where we have a little breathing room, but we’re getting used to these kinds of games and it’s the nature of the league right now.”
It was good to have leading scorer Kris Versteeg back in the lineup after a horrible bought with the flu. Versteeg doesn’t really care who he scores against, but he has had the most success this season against the Jets as he now has six goals and two assists.
“It’s been a rough little go over the last few days,” the left wing said. “Hopefully over the next little while I start to feel better, but a win always makes you feel pretty good.”
Playing Tampa will be some additional medicine for Versteeg who has three goals and three assists , and has scored 20 goals this season, the fourth consecutive time in his career that he’s accomplished that. Also warming up is veteran Mikael Saumelsson who assisted in Versteeg’s goal to give him a three game point streak. Sammy also like to face Tampa as he has four points in his last four visits to Tampa, all with Vancouver.
Kevin Dineen will continue to ride the hot hand of Scott Clemmensen and why not? This will be Clemmensen’s fifth start in a row as he fills in for Jose Theodore and is 3-0-1 in those games. His GAA in his past three is 1.62 and his save percentage is .942. Clemmensen will be the first goaltender this season to start back to back games for the Panthers had this to say about the division matchups and his teammates:
“These divisional games against teams we’re in the mix with are big. They are the end-all, be-all, but they are big games for us. For me, if I just play solid, I think this team in front of me will win. I don’t have to do anything special with this group.”
The Panthers are 2-1-2 against Tampa this season. Realizing how important these two points are, putting distance between themselves and the Lightning would be one less team to worry about. The Cats already have a 10 point margin over the Bolts. A victory tonight makes that a dozen.
The Lightning however are not a team that will go away easily and certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly. A high powered offence that is dangerous at even strength and with the man advantage, the Panthers will need to make sure that there are no “tired” penalties. You know, the hooking and holding kind when you can’t keep pace with your opponent. The Lightning are 5-3-2 in their last 10 and Guy Boucher was positive even after their overtime loss to Winnipeg on Thursday:
“No, it’s not disappointing. I found it encouraging that we played so well,” Boucher told the team’s official website. “We have two more opportunities at home and we don’t want to change our focus. I tell our guys that everything is in front of us. There’s nothing left behind. Everything is front of us, and the more you think about yesterday, the less prepared you are for today”.
Martin St. Louis is riding a five game point streak with nine, and Steven Stamkos, and former Panther Dominic Moore are among the other streaking players lately for the Bolts. Stamkos is headed back towards another 50 goal season as he leads the league with 33. He loves to play against the Panthers, and in 22 games he has 12 goals and 10 assists, including five in the previous four matchups.
As I type this, I’m unaware of who the official starter in net for Tampa will be, but I’d have to put my money on Mathieu Garon who has taken over as the number one from Dwayne Roloson. Garon is 3-0-1 in his previous four games and 15-13 on the season in 35 games. Roloson on the other hand has struggled in 24 games with a record of 7-10-0, possibly showing his age.
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