The Florida Panthers have a chance to climb up into a tie for 7th in the conference if they can manage a win tonight over the visiting Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo currently holds the 7th seed, just 2 points ahead of Florida. Pittsburgh sits in 8th, one point ahead of Florida, one point behind Buffalo.
The Cats have yet to lose in regulation in 2009, going 5-0-2. Buffalo has 6 wins in its last 8 games. Goaltending has been key for both teams lately. Tomas Vokoun came in to replace Craig Anderson in Florida's last game, a 4-3 comeback win against Tampa, and stopped all 22 shots he faced. Vokoun's been the winning goaltender in all of the Panthers' wins in 2009. Ryan Miller is 6-1-0 in his last 7 starts, with an impressive 1.96 goals against average. If both netminders play up to their abilities, it could be a tight one tonight. Lots of shots through lots of traffic is key for the Panthers' success. They can't come out and start the game like they did Saturday in Tampa. 2 straight comebacks from 2 goal deficits is nice, but it's a lot easier to do that against Niitymaki and Mike Smith then Ryan Miller and a solid Buffalo squad.
On the Panthers' side of things; Jay Bouwmeester is on a 6-game point streak. David Booth has 10 points in the last 7 games. Nathan Horton has 9 points in the last 7. Kamil Kreps returns to the lineup tonight after missing the last 9 games with a shoulder injury. But as Kreps comes in, Ville Peltonen goes out, thanks to an Evgeny Artyukhin knee-on-knee hit Saturday night that got Artyukhin suspended for 2 games. Nick Boynton will also miss tonight's game due to the flu bug. This means perennial healthy scratch Noah Welch gets an opportunity to show he belongs in the lineup. Welch hasn't played since December 27th, so let's hope he isn't too rusty.
It would be great to ride this train all the way through the All-Star break, and tonight's game is as big a game as the Panthers have seen in mid-January in a few years. Puck drops at 7:30.
P.S. Cory Murphy has finally found a new home. The defenseman was claimed by the Tampa Bay Lightning today.