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At times this season, Florida's franchises have looked like two of the NHL's worst.
That hasn't been the case lately.
The Florida Panthers will try to remain without a regulation loss in 2009 on Saturday when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning, who'll be looking to continue their recent rise from the Southeast Division cellar.
The Panthers stumbled to a 4-8-1 start this season, and they again lost four straight games to close the 2008 portion of their schedule. But despite Friday's 3-2 shootout loss to Philadelphia, they are 4-0-2 in their first six games of the new year, with their once-anemic offense scoring 29 goals over that span.
Coming off a five-day layoff, they managed just two goals on 34 shots against the Flyers, but they erased an early 2-0 deficit with a pair of second-period goals, outshooting Philadelphia 13-3 in that period.
"It was a good game for us, maybe not point-wise, but the way we came back was good," Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun said.
Florida (20-16-7) remains on the edge of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, but the Panthers could be in even better shape if not for their problems in shootouts. They're now 2-5 after overtime, missing all three of their attempts against the Flyers.
"Unfortunately, the shootouts are hurting us a little bit, we're dropping some points," Florida coach Pete DeBoer said. "But if we play like (Friday), we're going to win a lot more than we're going to lose."
The Lightning (14-20-10) have been even worse in shootouts, going 2-7. The intrastate rivals have split two shootouts against each other this season, with each club going 2-1-1 overall in the series.
Tampa Bay's two wins over the Panthers came just after Christmas, soon after the club's 7-16-9 start that included the firing of coach Barry Melrose. But the Lightning are 7-4-1 in their last 12, including wins in three of four to surge ahead of struggling Atlanta into fourth place in the division.
They racked up 44 shots in a 4-1 win over Philadelphia on Thursday, erasing an early deficit with three goals in a span of 2:03 late in the second period. Captain Vincent Lecavalier, the subject of trade rumors lately, added a penalty shot goal for insurance in the third.
"These last four or five days, I want to say I wasn't distracted but I was," Lecavalier said of the rumors, which have centered around a potential deal with his hometown Montreal Canadiens. "I think anybody would."
Lightning general manager Brian Lawton insisted that there's no plan to trade Lecavalier, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who has averaged 100 points in the last two seasons.
"Vinny is a professional," said Tampa Bay winger Martin St. Louis, who also scored against the Flyers. "I thought he was great out there. It's just the nature of the business. We've just got to be strong mentally."
Mike Smith, a bright spot for much of the season for the Lightning, also made 31 saves Thursday. Smith is 3-1-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average in his last four starts.
He seems likely to be in net opposite Vokoun, who has started the last four games for Florida, going 3-0-1 with a 2.46 GAA.
Vokoun struggled in two starts against the Lightning last month, however, getting pulled from a 4-3 shootout loss on Dec. 26 and allowing all of Tampa Bay's goals in a 6-4 loss the following night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
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