November 29, 2011; Raleigh, NC, USA; Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Joni Pitkanen (25) holds onto the Florida Panthers right wing Jack Skille (12) during the 3rd period at the RBC center. The Panthers defeated the Hurricanes 3-1. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE

Game Day Preview: Panthers vs. Hurricanes. Must Win. Again.


FLORIDA PANTHERS: 27-20-12 (66 PTS). vs. CAROLINA HURRICANES: 23-26-12 (56 PTS.)



The Florida Panthers begin the first game of a weekend back to back set with a short trip to Raleigh to take on the Carolina Hurricanes.  The Panthers who are coming off a four game homestand that they would love to put behind them, hopefully don’t end up regretting their home ice performance, as they managed only one out of a possible eight points, and saw their division lead evaporate.  As of today the Atlanta Thrashers Winnipeg Jets find themselves in first place by one point, and that lead could extend to three should they beat the St. Louis Blues this afternoon in a game that’s in progress right now.  The Washington Capitals play tonight as well, and are currently one point behind Florida, and hold the ninth spot in the conference.  As if there isn’t enough drama with the playoff races, it’s also the weekend before the NHL Trade Deadline.  But hey, no one’s nervous right?

Believe it or not the Panthers could fall briefly out of the playoff picture with a fifth consecutive loss to a Carolina team that now seems to be sniffing at the post season.  The Hurricanes are six points behind Florida prior to this game’s puck drop, and these two rivals will meet four times over the next six weeks.  Every point is crucial, and every game has playoff connotations , and the mental toughness will be severely tested the rest of the way.  I just don’t see anyone running away with the Southeast division right now, and for the Panthers ending their losing streak is vital to their survival.  Any prolonged stretch of losses, or continued inconsistency will make finishing the season on top that much harder.

Scoring for Florida has become a severe issue now to the point that the top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann has only one goal during the four game losing streak.  That goal scored by Flash came in the home loss to Washington on February 17th.  Kris Versteeg had no points during the homestand, and hasn’t scored since the Panthers beat the Islanders February 12th.  Prior to that, Versteeg seemed to have found himself back on track.  Stephen Weiss  has been offensively invisible, as his scoring drought is now reaching 10 games with no goals.  Weiss has only scored twice in the past 30 games!  I’m sorry, no wait, I’m not sorry, but that stat is unacceptable for our number one center.  I would imagine he’s feeling the pressure without anyone reminding him, and holding the stick a bit tight, however unless he gets out of his own way, you can point to that stat as being one of the top reasons the Panthers miss the playoffs if they do.

Jose Theodore has been playing excellent hockey over the past three games, but unfortunately has very little to show for it since his team hasn’t supported him offensively.  Theo is 0-2-1 with a 1.64 GAA and a .947 save percentage in that time.  The games have been kept close because of him and him alone.  The Panthers need to find a way to give him some support.  For the way he’s played all season,  Theodore has earned the right to have a better record.

As I prepare this, it appears that Jason Garrison will be returning to the lineup after missing the past five games with a lower body injury.  The Panthers power play has missed Garrison’s slapshot, and his return could help the anemic offence slightly.  However I never like to rely on a defenseman for scoring.  With Garrison’s return, Tyson Strachan has been sent back to San Antonio.  Strachan did a nice job filling in for Garrison, and I imagine we’ll see him again.

When the Panthers played Carolina in head coach Kirk Muller’s first game behind the bench, the Ex-Panther’s debut  was soiled with a 3-1 loss.  Then Kris Versteeg scored an overtime winner to give the Panthers their second victory over the Hurricanes on December 18th.  Even though the Hurricanes are near the bottom of the Eastern conference, they are only three wins away from being right back in the playoff hunt.  They have points in 14 of their last 17 games, and play the next four at home.

Jeff Skinner has been cold lately with one goal in his past seven, although Kristina Kelly from Cardiac Cane always thinks he’s hot, but Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty have picked up some of the slack. Staal for that matter has a seven game point streak, and is part of the reason for Carolina’s recent success.  The Canes are 5-2-3 in their last 10 games.

Not sure if Cam Ward gets the starting assignment tonight as he’s missed the past two games with a lower body injury.  Carolina has no worries though as Justin Peters is 2-0-0 in two starts against Florida with a 2.03 GAA.

Let’s get the broken record out….this game is a must win, and it can’t go to overtime since we can ill afford a three point game with a divisional foe.  Also going to a shootout would be another potential disaster as Carolina features shootout scorer extraordinaire Jussi Jokinen.

Nerdy Notes/Numbers:

* Carolina signed forward Tuomo Ruutu to a contract extension earlier this week, thus removing trade speculation.

* Brandon Sutter is one point shy of 100.

* Since 1999-2000 Carolina is 26-6-3 at home against the Panthers.

* The Hurricanes will wear their black sweaters tonight. They have a 6-5-2 record with their third’s.

* Jose Theodore is 18-12-3 against Carolina with four shutouts in 35 appearances.

* The Panthers have lost 263 man games to injury this season.

* Recently acquired forward Jerred Smithson will wear number 25 for the Panthers.

* Sean Bergenheim has 11 points in his last 15 games.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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Tags: Cardiac Cane Carolina Hurricanes Eric Staal Flash Florida Panthers Jeff Skinner Jose Theodore Justin Peters Kris Versteeg Stephen Weiss Tuomo Ruuto

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