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Hurricanes at Panthers: Muller & Co looking for back-to-back wins

The Carolina Hurricanes make a quick trip to southern Florida today before returning to Raleigh for a 3-game homestand over the Christmas holiday. The game starts at 5pm this afternoon and will not be televised here in Raleigh, so you'll need to seek out a TV with Center Ice or enjoy the radio call of Chuck Kaiton on 99.9 the Fan.

The Canes will be looking to build on a pair of strong performances earlier this week which included a thrilling 4-3 win over a hard-nosed Vancouver Canucks team in front of the home crowd Thursday. They lost a tight game in Toronto in OT Tueday by a score of 2-1.

With the announcement Wednesday that top contributors Jeff Skinner and Joni Pitkanen were our indefinitely with concussions, and that Brian Boucher's LBI was going to keep him out at least a couple months, call-up Drayson Bowman stepped up big time with his 2 goals in Thursday's win. Newcomer Jaroslav Spacek and Tuomo Ruutu also contributed a goal a piece. But it was Cam Ward who stole the show. Muller's first win at the RBC Center was one to remember.

As good as the win felt Thursday, the Canes (10-18-5) remain at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, 28th in the League, with a goal differential of -29. Playoff odds remain less that 1% - requiring they pick up about 70 points in the remaining 49 games to squeak in. The Canes have managed 5 points in their last 4 games, only one of which was at home.

The Florida Panthers (17-9-6) continue to be the dominant team in the Southeast Division, the only one currently above the playoff cut line, 32 games into the season. They came from behind in their win at home Friday night, beating the Calgary Flames in a shootout.

Carolina's lineup

Jay Harrison traveled with the team, and it's possible he will play his first game under the new coach. When asked yesterday, Muller said if Harrison does go in, it may be as one of 7 defensemen in the line up. Harrison suffered a concussion in the game vs the Montreal Canadiens the night before Thanksgiving, a night when he played over 29 minutes. That was a career high for the 29-year-old, building on a breakout season and emerging as the strongest and most consistent blueliner under the Canes former coach Paul Maurice this fall. With Pitkanen sidelined indefinitely with a concussion and Spacek replacing Tomas Kaberle, getting Harrison back in and up to speed gives Muller a variety of options on the back end.

If the coaches do opt to play 7 defensemen, then I would expect Andreas Nodl to be scratched. He played less than 3 minutes in the game Thursday. Or, if they stay with 12 forwards, Derek Joslin could be the odd man out, as he saw the least ice time among the defensemen in the win.

The Canes are not skating today prior to the early game. My best guess of the lines and pairings, based on how they practiced yesterday, and subject to change as the game develops (as they did Thursday night) would be:

UPDATE per Mike Maniscalco on twitter: Jay Harrison will return to the line-up tonight. Derek Joslin with be a healthy scratch.

Drayson Bowman - Eric Staal - Chad LaRose
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Jussi Jokinen - Tuomo Ruutu
Jiri Tlusty - Brandon Sutter - Patrick Dwyer
Andrea Nodl - Tim Brent - Anthony Stewart

Jaroslav Spacek - Justin Faulk
Tim Gleason - Jamie McBain
Bryan Allen - Jay Harrison - Derek Joslin

Bryan Allen played for the Panthers organization for 4 1/2 seasons before he was acquired by Carolina in a trade at last February's deadline. Kirk Muller also played for the Panthers near the end of his career.

Something to keep in mind: Cam Ward has struggled on the road vs the Panthers in his career, with a 5.45 GAA and 0-3-0 during his last four starts there. Back-up Justin Peters has made 3 appearances and 2 starts vs the Cats with 2.36 GAA, .919 Sv%.

Pregame Links

Give a listen to Kirk Muller's audio from Saturday for insight into what strengths he is seeing from individual players like Ruutu, Bowman, Allen, Ward. He's learning to know the players so much better than when he came in "cold" three weeks ago and is able now to define what he wants them to bring to the ice every night.

I also recommend Chip Alexander's lengthy profile of Muller that was in today's N&O Muller settles into new role with Canes - In his first three weeks as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Kirk Muller has been able to maintain a brave, unwavering smile.

Panthers plans

Rookie coach Kevin Dineen has found a way to assemble some great line combinations and pairings with this assemblage of spare parts Dale Tallon signed over the summer. Example: The top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann have put up nearly half the team's goals and together have 94 points. They each have a plus/minus rating of +17 or better.

On the back end, well-traveled and well-paid 32-year-old Brian Campbell, with just 2 goals but a whopping 22 assists, has been Dineen's workhorse, averaging 26:42 TOI, third best in the NHL. He is tied for second for points among defensemen. Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison also have made solid contributions on the score sheet. Garrison's nine goals, of which five came on the power play, is #1 among all defensemen for goals scored in the League.

This is the first time the Canes have played in Florida this season. The Cats have been playing well at home and are 5-0-2 since mid-November when playing in the BankAtlantic Center. Next season, the Panthers will no longer be in the same division as the Canes, and so the teams will see each other only twice a year.

In goal, Jose Theodore has been a solid #1 for Dineen. He also has a long history vs the Hurricanes going back to 2002 playoffs when he was the losing goaltender for the Canadiens in the memorable 6-game series vs the Canes. In 34 appearances. For his career vs Carolina, Theodore is 17-12-3, with a 2.68 GAA and a .907 Sv %. On the season his number look like this:

2011 - Jose Theodore 23 1361 12 6 53 2.34 690 637 .923 2

Forward Jack Skille injured his shoulder when he missed a check and crashed hard into the glass late in Friday's game. This opens the door for 30-year-old Greg Rallo who, according to the Miami Herald's George Richards "has been called up from AHL San Antonio and will make his NHL debut against the Hurricanes."

Another interesting note about today's game is that it is sponsored by Florida's Department of Transportation and the arena is limiting liquor sales as a statement regarding drunk driving. Again from the Herald: "The Panthers will not sell alcohol at any concession stands in the upper or lower levels at BankAtlantic Center and are closing the two bars in the 100 level." We'll have to see how that affects attendance or the atmosphere.

For additional game notes, stats and streaks, page through the Canes Media notes. 39-page PDF

For SBN's coverage from Florida end of the ice, Litter Box Cats will have the goods.

Planning your Sunday

With the game starting at 5pm, look for the Canes Country gamethread to open 30 minutes prior. As mentioned at the top, Fox Sports will not have local coverage though 99.9FM will have the call as always. If you have the NHL Center Ice package on your TV or an online NHL GameCenter subscription, you'll be good to go with video too.