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Senators visit red-hot Panthers

Sports Xchange - Monday 12th March, 2018

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers have become one half of a recurring NHL nightmare for many opponents.

The Ottawa Senators, who visit the Panthers on Monday night at the BBT Center, know all about this. In December, they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Panthers with one day of rest in between.

This time, it could be worse.

The Senators face the Panthers, who are the hottest team in the NHL with a 15-3-1 record since Jan. 30, and then take on the Lightning, who have the league's best record, on consecutive nights.

Florida has also won eight straight home games, breaking the old franchise record of seven.

Senators coach Guy Boucher didn't address the specifics of how well the Panthers have been playing the past six weeks or how good the Lightning have played all season. But he did talk about the schedule the Senators (23-33-11) have had to endure in what has been a lost season.

After all, the Senators lead the NHL in a dubious statistic: having the most sets of back-to-back games (19).

"We've got back-to-backs and back-to-backs and back-to-backs," Boucher told The Ottawa Senators. "That's tough."

Boucher said he saw another example last week after playing on Thursday and again on Friday.

"You saw it on Friday (a 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames)," Boucher said. "You push, but you are missing that edge. It is that little bit of energy that makes all the difference in the world, and we're going to have to fight that (feeling)."

The Senators, who practiced in Ottawa on Sunday morning before flying to Florida, also played two games in Sweden this season as part of their brutal schedule.

In addition, they lost their top winger, Mark Stone, in the Calgary game. Stone suffered a leg injury and did not make the trip to Florida. He leads the team with 62 points in 58 games, despite missing nine games due to injury.

The Senators are expected to replace Stone with Marian Gaborik on a line that also includes Bobby Ryan and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

Meanwhile, Florida (34-25-7) is healthy other than a knee injury that figures to sideline second-line winger Denis Malgin for two more weeks.

But the Panthers got winger Frank Vatrano off injured reserve in Saturday's 4-3 home shootout win over the New York Rangers. Vatrano, who had an ankle injury, made his Panthers debut after being acquired from the Boston Bruins on Feb. 22.

The Panthers put him on that second line, in place of Malgin, and Vatrano responded on Saturday with a goal in his debut with the team.

Vatrano played a career-high 19:05, skating on the second line with Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau.

"I haven't played in about a month," Vatrano said. "It was probably the most minutes I've played in two years (since his AHL days)."

The Panthers have high hopes for Vatrano, a 23-year-old who scored 10 goals in 44 games with the Bruins last season. He scored 36 goals in 36 AHL games in 2015-2016, compiling 55 points, and Panthers scouts surely saw that when making the move to acquire him in exchange for a third-round pick this June.

Vatrano merely adds to a team that was already on fire before he made his debut. Since Feb. 22, when the home streak started, the Panthers lead the NHL in home wins. Goalie Roberto Luongo is 7-0-0 at home during that streak with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage.

Top skaters during the streak are Evgenii Dadonov (six goals, six assists), Aleksander Barkov (five goals, seven assists) and defenseman Keith Yandle (nine assists).

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