Surging Panthers host Devils (Feb 28, 2018)

February 28, 2018

SUNRISE, Fla. -- In the past three games, the Florida Panthers have taken down the two-time reigning Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in second place in the Eastern Conference.

In fact, all three of those teams are in playoff position, which is more that can be said for the surging Panthers (29-25-6), who have won 10 of their past 13 games to put themselves in contention.

On Thursday night, the Panthers will play host to a fourth straight team in playoff position, the New Jersey Devils (33-22-8) at the BB&T Center.

The goalie matchup will likely be Florida's Roberto Luongo against either Keith Kincaid or Cory Schneider. Kincaid has won five of his past six starts. Schneider, normally the starter, has lost seven straight games and hasn't played since Jan. 23 because of a groin injury. He's expected back this week, possibly Thursday.

Forward Patrick Maroon, who was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers last week before the trade deadline, is expected to make his Devils debut Thursday. He has missed four straight games because of a lower-body injury.

Meanwhile, for the Panthers, it's their fourth contest of a six-game homestand and a chance for the team to make a charge.

"Since the All-Star break, we've been one of hotter teams in the NHL," Panthers first-year coach Bob Boughner said. "Finally, in the second half (of the season), we've made the adjustment to the new (coaching) staff, new system, getting to know the players' tendencies."

Boughner said one of the factors in the turnaround was a line change that separated center Aleksander Barkov and left winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who had been playing together for the past couple of seasons on the top unit.

Looking for more balance, Boughner moved Huberdeau to the second line with right winger Denis Malgin and center Vinny Trocheck, an All-Star in 2017.

Barkov, an All-Star this year, remained on the top line with Evgenii Dadonov, and Boughner moved Nick Bjugstad up to join them.

With Malgin getting injured against Pittsburgh, Boughner moved veteran Radim Vrbata, who has had a disappointing season, up to the second line starting with Tuesday's win over Toronto.

Malgin will miss two weeks because of a lower-body injury. Another Panthers winger, Frank Vatrano, who was acquired from the Boston Bruins in a trade just before Monday's deadline, is also injured but could return this week.

Meanwhile, the Devils have won two games in a row and six of eight. The Devils have also won four straight road games, beating three teams during that span who are in playoff position, including the Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lead the Eastern Conference.

Before this season started, the Panthers (45-1 Stanley Cup odds) and Devils (120-1) were long-shots even to make the playoffs.

But the Devils, who have missed the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, have turned things around in the second year under coach John Hynes.

Aside from Maroon, the Devils acquired winger Michael Grabner from their rival New York Rangers just before Monday's deadline. Grabner has great speed and 52 goals the past two years, including 25 this season.

Left winger Taylor Hall leads New Jersey in goals (27), assists (41) and points (68). Nico Hischier, a 19-year-old rookie center who was the NHL's first overall draft pick in 2017, has 13 goals and 28 assists, ranking second on the team in points.

The play of Hall and Hischier and the addition of Grabner have improved a team that two years ago finished last in the NHL in goals.

Hall has at least one point in 22 consecutive games, the longest streak in the league this season. He has 15 goals and 17 assists during that span and is the fifth NHL player in the past 25 years to have a 22-game point streak.

Hall told the media Tuesday that his assist in that Penguins game wasn't exactly superlative, but he'll take it because he believes he turned in a strong overall effort.

"I got a secondary assist in the neutral zone, but that's the way it's been going for me," Hall said. "You score in 22 straight games -- there has to be some luck involved."

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