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A successful western road trip has helped the Carolina Hurricanes keep pace in the playoff race. They'll take on one of the teams standing in the way of a postseason berth in their return home.
Sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, Carolina (27-22-5) looks for its third straight win, third home victory in a row and third consecutive win at the RBC Center over the Florida Panthers (26-19-8) on Thursday.
The Hurricanes trail their Southeast Division rivals by one point for the eighth and final playoff berth. A 7-2 victory at Phoenix on Saturday pushed Carolina past Florida into the spot, but the Panthers defeated Toronto on Tuesday to move back into eighth.
The Hurricanes' three-game trip didn't get off to a promising start with a 4-3 loss to Vancouver on Feb. 3, but Carolina rebounded with a 4-3 shootout win over Western Conference-leading San Jose two days later. The Hurricanes followed that up by scoring five unanswered goals over the final 24:50 against the Coyotes to earn their sixth victory in eight games.
With one game remaining against Florida - March 23 at the BankAtlantic Center - Thursday's game could prove pivotal.
"It's definitely crunch time for us, and all you have to do to remind yourself is to take a look at those standings and see how tight of a race it is," goaltender Cam Ward said.
Carolina has won 15 of its last 16 home meetings with Florida. The Panthers, however, are 2-1-1 against the Hurricanes this season and took the most recent matchup 4-2 at home Jan. 8.
The Panthers also come into Thursday's contest hot, beating Toronto 5-4 in overtime Tuesday for their fifth victory in seven games.
The latest win came in dramatic fashion, as Florida erased a 4-1 third-period deficit and won on Richard Zednik's second goal of the game in the extra period - exactly one year after his neck was severely slashed by a teammate's skate blade.
"I think this year, it's a different focus on our team," center Nathan Horton said. "When we're down, we know we can come back. I think we just stuck with it, and we got some bounces at the end and we won."
After averaging 2.46 goals through Jan. 31, the Panthers have averaged 3.63 while going 10-3-3 in the new year - 4.60 in the victories. Zednik has three goals and two assists in the past three games.
While Florida has picked it up offensively, it will be facing a Carolina team that's played tight defense during its surge. The Hurricanes have allowed 1.88 goals per game in their last eight contests, yielding three or fewer in seven of those games. Ward is 5-2-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average during that span.
Carolina has also been better offensively of late, with 13 goals in the past three games. The Hurricanes got a boost with the return of All-Star center Eric Staal on Saturday, and added forward Jussi Jokinen in a weekend trade with Tampa Bay.
Captain Rod Brind'Amour might also be back in the lineup Thursday after missing two games with a groin injury.
Carolina has split the last eight meetings with Florida after winning 10 of 11.