Panthers aim to keep division lead, face Wild

March 29, 2012

Tune into FOX Sports Florida at 8 p.m. to watch the Florida Panthers take on the Minnesota Wild. NHL Panthers territory.

A road trip against mainly lackluster competition would only seem to aid the Florida Panthers' quest for their first Southeast Division title and first playoff berth in 12 years.

The Panthers play the second of those four straight road games Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild.

Florida (37-24-15) had lost three in a row heading into Tuesday's game in Montreal with consecutive shootout defeats. Wojtek Wolski helped make sure the Panthers didn't lose another shootout and scored in regulation during a 3-2 victory.

That result, coupled with Washington's 5-1 loss to Buffalo on Tuesday, put the Panthers five points ahead of the Capitals in the division with one game in hand. They'll travel to the nation's capital April 5 before wrapping up the regular season at home against Carolina two days later.

"We're in the driver's seat and we want to tighten our grip a bit," goaltender Scott Clemmensen said. "In a perfect world, we could go into Washington next week and have a big cushion and take that pressure off ourselves."

What could help alleviate that pressure is facing two more teams already eliminated from playoff contention. After visiting Minnesota, Florida will head to Columbus, which has the fewest points in the league. The Panthers will end their trip Sunday against Detroit.

The Wild (31-35-10) were officially knocked out of the postseason hunt with a 3-0 loss to Washington on Sunday and dropped to 3-10-1 in their last 14 games with a 3-2 defeat to the New York Rangers on Tuesday.

"It's just the little mental lapses we've got to get rid of," center Kyle Brodziak said following his team's third consecutive defeat. "We have a jersey to represent, and we have fans that come out and support us and there's a lot of reasons to keep playing and keep working as hard as we can."

Minnesota has been outscored 46-20 and shut out five times during its current struggles.

"We're having trouble putting pucks in the net," forward Devin Setoguchi said. "It's frustrating for a lot of guys, including myself."

The Wild haven't usually experienced much frustration against Florida, going 8-1-1 in the last 10 matchups, but both of those losses have come over the last three meetings.

The Panthers earned their first win in five visits to Minnesota with a 3-2 shootout victory March 9, 2010, and prevailed 2-1 at home Nov. 12, 2010.

The Wild, though, claimed this season's only meeting, 3-2 in a shootout Feb. 23 in Florida. The Panthers' Sean Bergenheim helped send that game into overtime by scoring with 4:12 remaining in regulation, but Jose Theodore couldn't outduel former teammate Niklas Backstrom after the extra five minutes.

Theodore served as a backup to Backstrom last season before signing a two-year deal with Florida in July. Backstrom, who hasn't played since March 1 because of a lower-body injury, was back on the Wild bench during Tuesday's loss as the backup to Josh Harding.

It's unclear when Backstrom will return to the net, but the Wild would probably love for that to happen Thursday since he's 4-0-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average in five career games against the Panthers.

Harding has never faced Florida.