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Florida Panthers Pregame: ‘Juggernaut’ Cats set for battle with the Canes

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The Florida Panthers are back on the ice for the first time since Feb. 1 when they play the host Carolina Hurricanes tonight in Raleigh. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

In what could be a preview of the Eastern Conference final, the Florida Panthers return to action against the high-powered Carolina Hurricanes all in front of a national television audience on TNT.

The Panthers and Hurricanes account for the second and third-best point percentage in the NHL respectively — and there is mutual respect on both sides.

Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour called Florida “the juggernaut team” during All-Star weekend according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

“That management (group) has done a great job in the way (it’s) assembled that team,’’ he said. “There are no weaknesses.

“They play to their identity, which all the top teams do. You’re going to get high-octane. You’ve got to be on your toes … It’s a fun team to watch, not so much fun to play against.”

Florida feels the same way against the Hurricanes, a team in which a rivalry has been renewed over the past two seasons.

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“It’s obviously going to be tough, they’re one of the best teams in the league and they’ve been great at home, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Radko Gudas said.

“It’s also nice to get recognized by the rest of the league, it’s nice to see that guys are taking us seriously and getting ready for us. It’s something that you work on from game one and if you accomplish that in the first half, it’s a pretty good success.”

Florida coach Andrew Brunette senses that rivalry brewing between the two teams, who are both working to unseat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning for hockey’s ultimate prize.

“We’re both vying to be that next team,” Brunette said.

“Both teams play fast, they have a lot of offensive weapons, their defensemen are up in the play, so we’re very similar in a lot of different ways and I think that’s why there is such a rivalry between the two of us. We’re both trying to be that next team.”

It has been a rivalry Florida has controlled this season — the Panthers handed the Hurricanes their first loss of the season in Sunrise on Nov. 6 and won in overtime in their previous visit to Raleigh on Jan. 8 — but Wednesday’s match-up will not be easy.

The Hurricanes have a 16-4-1 record at home, so the Panthers know it won’t be easy.

“They’re one of the hardest teams to play against,” Jonathan Huberdeau said. “I think they play well defensively, it’s hard to get chances against them, so when you get them you have to capitalize on it.

“When they’re at home, they’re even better, so we just need to have a good start, weather the storm, and play our game.”

With the Panthers having not played a game in two weeks, there may be some rust going into Wednesday night. They know they are entering one of the most important stretches of the season.

“It is going to be important,” Gudas said of starting the game off strong.

“Those guys are ready to go, they played a few games already, so for us, keeping things simple, getting quick changes, and getting everybody involved is going to be important for us right from the start.”

They are going against a “cranky” Hurricanes team, as Brunette called them.

Carolina dropped three of their last four games coming off of the All-Star break, including their past two games against the Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild.

“For me, the first part of the first period is going to be huge us because they’ve been playing and we have to get our feet wet,” he said.

“Our puck play is going to be vital, especially early, they are going to pressure us, they are going to force us into uncomfortable positions, and if we’re not sharp and we’re not ready to think quick, nevermind skate quick, we’re going to be in for a long night.”

Florida currently sits one point behind Tampa Bay with two games in hand for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, so coming out of the break hot is crucial.

“This is when the fun starts,” Gudas said.

“Everyone was excited for the first half and the break and now everyone’s excited for the second half. It’s fun to be a part of a group that has this energy and wants to get better as the season continues.”

Morning Skate Updates

  • Patric Hornqvist returns to the lineup for the first time since Jan. 18. He slots back in on the fourth line with Eetu Luostarinen and Ryan Lomberg.
  • Noel Acciari was activated off of LTIR but will be a healthy scratch on Wednesday against Carolina. He could return at some point during the road trip per Brunette.
  • Owen Tippett remains on the second line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett, Maxim Mamin remains on Injured Reserve for now while Acciari, Joe Thornton, and Frank Vatrano are the healthy scratches.
  • Olli Juolevi was also activated off of Injured reserve, but Lucas Carlsson skated on the third pair during morning skate per Jameson Olive.
  • To make room for Hornqvist, Acciari and Juolevi, the Panthers placed Joe Thornton on IR.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky starts in net for the Panthers, Jonas Johansson backs him up. Spencer Knight remains in Charlotte, likely for the remainder of the road trip.

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS AT CAROLINA HURRICANES

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