The Florida Panthers and the Minnesota Wild are similar this year in that they both started the season turning heads and making headlines. The two teams surged to the tops of their respective divisions in December, surprising the hockey world with their stellar play early on. While the Panthers still barely hold their division lead, both have cooled off since then and seen their points total increase at a much less consistent rate. Tonight, they do battle in Sunrise.
The Panthers (27-20-11) come into the first of two matchups against the Wild off a three game losing streak. They lead the Southeast division with the advantage of fewer games played than the Jets, who also have 65 points. The Caps sit at 63 points having lost three in a row themselves, while getting outscored in those games in an embarrasing 12-3 fashion. Not to help the Panthers’ situation, the Lightning might just be peaking at the right time. Though they were pretty much a non-factor all season, they have jumped to a three game winning streak and now find themselves only five points behind the Cats.
The simple notion of getting pucks in the net has proven to be the Panthers’ most daunting task in this portion of the schedule. The Panthers were a team that prided themselves in sending their home crowd away happy most nights, but in their last 10 at the Bank Atlantic Center they have only scored more than two goals on two occasions. In their last effort at home, they were shut out 2-0 by the Anaheim Ducks.
Jose Theodore played 32 games for Minnesota last season and will likely be starting in net against his former team tonight. He stopped 25 of 27 in the loss to the Ducks on Sunday and prior to that denied 39 of 41 in the 2-1 loss to the Capitals this past Friday.
Minnesota has only won two of their last 10 games and currently sit at 26-24-9. They are 12-14-5 on the road and come into tonight’s game with the momentum of knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champions on Sunday. The Wild will be playing without their captain and assists-leader, Mikko Koivu, who has already missed two games due to an undisclosed injury.
Not being able to generate enough offense has also recently plagued the Wild as they have only scored 12 goals in nine games this month. Dany Heatley has been their primary hero this season leading in goals with 19 and in points with 42. He scored his 19th goal on Valentine’s Day in the Wild’s 2-1 loss to Anaheim, but still tallied two assists in three games since then. He has been Minnesota’s iron man having played in all 59 games so far this season, and the Panthers’ D will have to key into shutting him down if they want to pull out a much-needed win tonight.
It is probable that Niklas Backstrom will start between the pipes for Minnesota while he comes off a career-high 48 saves to earn the 2-0 shutout against the Bruins. He’s been allowed four nights of rest since then and has a 1.84 GAA in his previous eight games.
The Panthers desperately need to return to their winning ways at home if they want to be considered a serious playoff contender again. The division race in which they once held a seven point cushion is tightening more and more by the night. With only 12 home games remaining, capitalizing on home ice advantage is beyond critical. Puck drops at 7:30p.m.
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