NHL Hockey

Battling for first, Hurricanes begin two-game set vs. Panthers

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The Carolina Hurricanes and the host Florida Panthers are set to meet on Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla., in a battle for first place in the Central Division.

"All these games now, they mean a lot," said Hurricanes goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who made 26 saves on Tuesday in a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina (30-10-5, 65 points) has two games in hand on the Panthers, making Thursday night even more consequential for Florida (30-12-5, 65).

In addition, the Panthers have lost five straight games to Carolina. The only time Florida has beaten the Hurricanes this year was on Feb. 17 on Jonathan Huberdeau's overtime goal.

Overall, though, the Panthers are playing well, having won three straight games.

On Tuesday night, the Panthers beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-1 as Spencer Knight made 33 saves in his NHL debut. Playing one day after his 20th birthday, Knight -- Florida's first-round pick in 2019 -- became the youngest Panthers goalie ever to earn a victory.

"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I'd be," Knight said.

While Knight could start on Thursday, it is expected that the Panthers will go back to veteran Sergei Bobrovsky (17-7-2, 2.82 GAA). Bobrovsky is 0-1-1 with a 2.91 GAA against Carolina this year.

Chris Driedger, Florida's other option in goal, is 12-5-3 with a 2.09 GAA this year. Against Carolina this year, he is 1-2-1 with a 2.98 GAA.

Nedeljkovic is 11-4-2 with a 1.87 GAA. Former Panthers goalie James Reimer is 14-5-1 with a 2.68 GAA, but he hasn't played since April 12. Petr Mrazek is 5-1-2 with a 1.60 GAA.

Both teams have injury concerns.

For Carolina, defenseman Brady Skjei left Tuesday's game after getting hit by Blake Coleman. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said he is worried Skjei may have a concussion.

In addition, Carolina forwards Brock McGinn (upper body) and Teuvo Teravainen (concussion) were out on Tuesday and questionable for Thursday.

For the Panthers, star defenseman Aaron Ekblad (lower-body injury) is out for the season. Forward Mason Marchment is unlikely to play on Thursday after suffering an upper-body injury in Tuesday's first period. Forward Carter Verhaeghe, who is third on the Panthers with 35 points, is also out.

However, Panthers forward Patric Hornqvist, who was rested on Tuesday, is expected to be ready to play on Thursday. He has 14 goals and 17 assists, ranking fourth on the team in points.

Another piece of good news for the Panthers is the recently created line of Sam Bennett, Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair.

Bennett, acquired in an April 12 trade with the Calgary Flames, has three goals and two assists in three games with the Panthers. He had just four goals and eight assists in 38 games with Calgary.

"They've had some highlight-reel goals," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of his new line. "Bennett seems to be getting to the net, making pretty plays off the rush. All three guys are making it happen."

Indeed, Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (33) and points (49). Florida captain Aleksander Barkov is second on the squad in assists (27) and points (46).

Sebastian Aho leads Carolina in goals (18) and points (41). Former Panthers forward Vinny Trocheck is second in goals (17) and points (38), and defenseman Dougie Hamilton leads the Hurricanes in assists (31) and ranks third in points (37).

--Field Level Media

Updated April 22, 2021

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