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After defeating a team they're trailing in the Eastern Conference standings, the Carolina Hurricanes look for their fifth straight win on Thursday night as they visit a streaking Florida Panthers club that is trying to catch them for second place in the Southeast Division.
Carolina (21-15-5) opens a three-game road trip following its 3-2 home victory over New Jersey on Tuesday. It gave the Hurricanes their first four-game winning streak since taking five straight from March 1-12, 2008, and moved them within two points of New Jersey - currently the sixth-best club in the East.
"Tonight was a huge win," said Carolina coach Paul Maurice, who improved to 9-4-3 since taking over for the fired Peter Laviolette. "It's important to beat teams that are ahead of you in the standings. It gives you confidence that you're in the chase. You're not just necessarily fighting the teams that are behind you."
On Tuesday night, though, Maurice's club will do just that when it faces a Florida (18-16-6) club it leads by five points in the Southeast.
Former Panther Ray Whitney, who had 97 goals for Florida from 1997-2001, scored for the first time since Dec. 23 in Tuesday's Hurricanes victory. Tuomo Ruutu scored the game winner against the Devils - his first goal in seven games - and Sergei Samsonov added his 200th career goal for Carolina.
While Carolina will seek its third straight road win Thursday, the Panthers will try to avoid a third consecutive home loss. Florida salvaged a split of its four-game road trip on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory over Toronto.
"We really outplayed (the Maple Leafs), got up a couple, and we really didn't look back from there," said defenseman Bryan McCabe, who extended his point streak to three games with an assist against. "It was a good game."
It's was a solid first half of the season for the Panthers, who have their best record at the midway point since 1999-2000, when they started 23-14-3 en route to their last playoff appearance.
"I think the biggest difference has been our blue line," Florida general manager Jacques Martin told the Panthers' official Web site. "Our D-line, with the exception of Bryan Allen, has been healthy and...I was just looking over their production. They have (25) goals. That's quite an improvement over the past seasons."
The 25 goals by defensemen are tied with Nashville for the highest such total in the NHL.
Florida's offense will likely face a tough test on Thursday. Carolina goalie Cam Ward, made 26 saves Tuesday, has been in net for all four games of his team's current winning streak, compiling a 1.50 GAA during the run. He is 3-1-0 with a 2.68 GAA in four career starts at Florida.
Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made 24 saves to earn his 200th career win Tuesday, is 2-5-2 with a 3.18 GAA in his last 10 games versus Carolina.
Seven of the last eight meetings between the Panthers and Hurricanes in Florida have been decided by one goal, including a 3-2 Panthers victory on Nov. 24. The home team has won all three matchups in this season series thus far, two of which were at Carolina.