TV: FOX Sports Florida
TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m.
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The red-hot Florida Panthers — one of the hottest teams in the NHL with an 11-3-0 record in their past 14 games — figure to get a break on Friday night … or maybe not.
On paper, the Panthers (30-25-6) should have an easy time on Friday when they host the Buffalo Sabres (20-33-11) at the BB&T Center. The Sabres are, after all, the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
But the Sabres are coming off a 2-1 overtime win at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night. Jason Pominville had the game-winning, power-play goal with 1:26 in overtime, sinking a Tampa Bay team that has the best record in the East.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper ripped his team while simultaneously giving Buffalo credit.
“There was one team that looked like they are getting close to the playoffs and one team that looked like they weren’t,” Cooper told the media. “Take that from there which team was which.”
Indeed, the Sabres have won three of their past four games, with wins over two likely playoff teams, the Lightning and Boston Bruins.
The goalie matchup on Friday is expected to be Florida’s Roberto Luongo, who shut down the New Jersey Devils on Thursday in a 3-2 win; against Buffalo’s Chad Johnson, who did the same to Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
Florida has now put together a highly impressive four-game win streak that includes victories over four teams currently in playoff position, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Devils.
“I’m proud of the guys — New Jersey is a good team. We just beat four good teams in a row,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “I just addressed the team and said we had to find a way to bottle the way we played the last 15 minutes.”
Florida top-line center Aleksander Barkov scored twice on Thursday. He has 23 goals and 60 points this season, reaching the latter milestone for the first time in his career.
Barkov and linemates Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad will look to do damage against Buffalo. Florida’s second line of center Vincent Trocheck and wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Radim Vrbata is also dangerous.
“Right now, we’re playing really well,” Barkov said after Thursday’s win. “We want to play hard for each other and win games. That’s what we want to do (on Friday), too.
“We still have 20 games left. I’m glad I’m helping the team score goals. But all that matters is winning.”
Luongo said there is one main reason why Florida has improved of late, especially defensively.
“You can tell we’re limiting odd-man rushes,” Luongo said. “There aren’t many per game. We don’t want to be a team that trades chances. We’re a good team when we control the puck in the offensive zone, and we use our speed to our advantage.”