By Bill Whitehead
With their 7-2 drubbing courtesy of the Jets left behind in Manitoba, the Florida Panthers will take to the ice tonight for home game No. 22 of 24, and they will be attempting to do something they have already accomplished at BB&T Center — beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, which they did, 6-4, on Feb. 26.
Florida (13-21-6, 32 pts.) stands in stark contrast to the Penguins, who earlier this week, to no one’s surprise, clinched the Atlantic Division crown in a 5-3 win at Carolina. Pittsburgh (31-10-0, 62 pts.) still has the competitive edge despite clinching, though, and will need it in the remaining seven games. The Penguins hold a five-point lead over Montreal and six-point edge on Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and both of the Northeast Division teams have a game in hand over the Penguins. Pittsburgh also trails Chicago by four points for the overall No. 1 spot in the league, and the Blackhawks also have an extra game to play.
Some of the numbers between Pittsburgh and Florida are striking. As far as goals for and against, simply invert the numbers. The Penguins have tallied an NHL-best 138 goals this season, while the Panthers have yielded a league-high 139. The Pens haven’t been too charitable, allowing just 101 goals to the 98 netted by the Cats. And this stat sums up the clubs’ season in a nutshell: Pittsburgh didn’t lose in March, posting a 15-game winning streak; Florida has won 13 games…on the season.
The three-time Stanley Cup champions have been playing without Sidney Crosby since the captain broke his jaw and lost multiple teeth after being hit by a slap shot from teammate Brooks Orpik on March 30. Still the Hart Trophy favorite, No. 87 was recently given clearance to fly with the team to Florida, and he was in the press box during the club’s 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. Crosby, who isn’t skating yet, will join the team in Sunrise in their effort to win the season series from Florida (Pittsburgh won at home, 3-1, on Feb. 22), though there’s no time table for his return. Also, defenseman Kris Letang (broken toe, groin) returned to the lineup against the Lightning; Letang (3-25-28) has missed 12 games this season with numerous ailments but still is third in scoring among defensemen behind P.K. Subban and Ryan Suter. Fellow blueliner Paul Martin (broken hand) has resumed skating.
Panthers fans will be seeing some new faces wearing the black and gold. Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero was the most active general manager near the trade deadline and made it known his intention is for his club to win the Stanley Cup now. He acquired forwards Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow, plus added rugged defenseman Douglas Murray. While Jokinen appears to be the minor acquisition, Shero was able to trade with Carolina for Jokinen, who was placed on waivers last month. By trading for him instead, Shero put the Hurricanes on the hook for a portion of Jokinen’s contract.
For Florida, Tomas Fleischmann and T.J. Brennan both had a goal and an assist against Winnipeg, and Brennan has been impressive since being acquired from Buffalo. Fleischmann has a seven-game point streak and 11 points in his last 12 games. The Panthers will head to the metropolitan New York area after the game, embarking on a four-game road trip beginning on Long Island on Tuesday against the playoff-primed New York Islanders.
The puck drops tonight at 7:30 in the final meeting between the two teams and will be broadcast on Sun Sports and 560 WQAM.
FRIDAY NIGHT ‘LIGHTS: In Calgary, the Flames allowed a late goal by Phoenix to force overtime, but Mark Giordano’s shot from the high slot with 23.1 seconds left in the extra session beat goalie Mike Smith and lifted Calgary to the win. The victory pulled the Flames out of a three-way tie for last in the league standings with Florida and Colorado and into a tie with Carolina with 34 points…In Newark, the Ottawa Senators continued their surprisingly strong season, despite playing without stars Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, by beating the New Jersey Devils 2-0 behind a 33-save showing by former Panther goalie Craig Anderson. The ninth consecutive loss by the Devils and ex-Florida coach Pete DeBoer likely ended the team’s quest for the playoffs. New Jersey, who ousted Florida in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year, trails ninth-place Winnipeg and the eighth-place New York Rangers by four points…