Sunrise, FL -- The Carolina Hurricanes (30-10-5, 65pts) and the Florida Panthers (30-12-5, 65pts) take to the ice tonight to kick off their final series of the regular season.
The Canes are coming off a 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night.
The win kept the Canes at the top of the Central Division standings, right alongside the Florida Panthers.
"There's no doubt about it; if [the Central Division] isn't the toughest, it's right up there," Carolina head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "I think [Florida] is just realizing the potential they've had here for a while, but it's all coming together now."
After taking three of a possible four points in a two-game swing through Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes arrived in South Florida. Now the Canes have an opportunity to put some breathing room between themselves and the Panthers as both teams head into the final stretch of the regular season.
"They're a good team. They're always a threat to score goals; they're very quick at moving the puck off of turnovers...You've always got to be aware of where everyone is on the ice," Canes captain Jordan Staal said, speaking about the Panthers. "They've got some talented players, a good powerplay. So yeah, it's just a good team."
All that said, Carolina has had Florida's number all season. The Canes are 5-0-1 against the Panthers, the only loss coming on February 17th in overtime.
One of the main reasons for the Canes' success? A former Panther--Vincent Trocheck.
Trocheck has feasted on the Panthers this season, with eight points (6g, 2a) in the six games against his former club.
Along with Trocheck, Sebastian Aho (3g, 5a, +6 rating) has been another thorn in the Panthers' side.
Canes head coach Rod Brind'Amour announced that Brady Skjei, who left Tuesday night's game against Tampa Bay with an upper-body injury, is in the concussion protocol. Brind'Amour had no update on Teuvo Teravainen or Brock McGinn ahead of Thursday's game.
The surplus of Left-Defencemen that Carolina boasted a few weeks ago (Slavin, Skjei, Fleury, Bean, and Gardiner) has now dwindled through a combination of injuries and trades.
Brind'Amour noted that Joakim Ryan, rather than Jake Bean, will play tonight. Jake Gardiner, who was placed on waivers a few weeks ago, is expected to play on the 2nd defensive pairing tonight.
Similar to Carolina, Florida is also dealing with its share of injury concerns.
After losing star defenceman Aaron Ekblad to a broken leg, the Panthers are battling through injuries to several key players down the stretch. Mason Marchment, Carter Verhaeghe, Noel Acciari, and Chris Driedger are all expected to miss tonight's game.
Alex Nedeljkovic (11-4-2, .932 SV%, 1.87 GAA) will start in net for the Hurricanes.
Sergei Bobrovsky (17-7-2, .909 SV%, 2.82 GAA) will get the start for Florida.
The Canes' expected lines:
Andrei Svechnikov — Sebastian Aho — Jesper Fast
Nino Niederreiter — Vincent Trocheck — Martin Necas
Jordan Martinook — Jordan Staal — Warren Foegele
Cedric Paquette — Steven Lorentz — Morgan Geekie
Jaccob Slavin — Dougie Hamilton
Jake Gardiner — Brett Pesce
Joakim Ryan — Jani Hakanpaa
Injuries: Teuvo Teravainen (concussion), Brock McGinn (upper body), Jake Bean (healthy), Petr Mrazek (lower body), Brady Skjei (concussion)
Florida's expected lines:
Nikita Gusev — Aleksander Barkov — Patric Hornqvist
Jonathan Huberdeau — Sam Bennett — Anthony Duclair
Frank Vatrano — Alex Wennberg — Ryan Lomberg
Eetu Luostarinen — Juho Lammikko — Owen Tippett
Gustav Forsling — MacKenzie Weegar
Markus Nutivaara — Brandon Montour
Keith Yandle — Radko Gudas
Injuries: Aaron Ekblad (leg surgery), Mason Marchment (upper body), Carter Verhaeghe (upper body), Noel Acciari (upper body), Chris Driedger (upper body)