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23-26-13

Panthers-Hurricanes Preview

AP - Sports

The Florida Panthers could regain the Southeast Division lead following their next game. They could also fall out of the playoff picture in the crowded Eastern Conference.

Florida will try to snap a season high-tying four-game losing streak Saturday night when the host Carolina Hurricanes continue their playoff push in the first of four matchups between these division rivals over the next six weeks.

After falling one point behind Winnipeg for the division lead with Thursday's 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, the Panthers (27-20-12) could retake the top spot with a victory and a Jets regulation loss to St. Louis on Saturday.

Florida, though, would find itself out of the top eight spots in the East with a regulation loss to the Hurricanes (23-26-12) and a Toronto victory over Washington.

"We can't expect other teams to lose every game. We have to bear down and do our part,'' forward Mikael Samuelsson said after scoring and setting up a goal on Thursday in the finale of the team's 0-3-1 homestand. "If you're not winning games, you're not making the playoffs.''

If the Panthers don't start putting the puck in the back of the net, their chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2000 will be slim.

Florida has scored five times - none by Kris Versteeg or Stephen Weiss - during its losing streak after netting 10 goals during a 3-0-0 run that preceded this skid.

The Panthers are 21-2-4 when scoring at least three times.

They'll try to avoid their first five-game skid since a 0-7-3 stretch from March 19-April 8, as they go for a third consecutive victory over Carolina.

Florida spoiled Kirk Muller's coaching debut with a 3-1 victory in Raleigh on Nov. 29, then won 3-2 in overtime at home on Dec. 18 with Versteeg scoring 3:08 into the extra session.

While Muller's club has a conference-low 58 points, the Hurricanes have points in 14 of their last 17 games and play their next four at home. Carolina is 11-3-2 in Raleigh since losing five straight there.

"In the position we're in, we've got to beat these types of teams that are ahead of us, so you've got the opportunity," Muller said following Friday's practice. "The way to catch them is to win these games. If you don't, it certainly separates the distance even more. Tomorrow is a big game for us, we're aware of it."

Carolina could use a lift from center Jeff Skinner, who has no points in the last three games and just one goal in the last seven, but Jiri Tlusty and captain Eric Staal have been doing a nice job carrying the team. Tlusty has four goals and six assists during his nine-game point streak - two shy of the team's longest stretch since it relocated to North Carolina in 1997.

Staal's seven-game run with at least one point includes six goals and six assists.

It's uncertain if Cam Ward will be in net for Carolina after missing the last two games with a lower-body injury. Ward had won six of eight home starts versus Florida before his 18-save performance on Nov. 29.

Backup Justin Peters is 2-0-0 with a 2.03 goals-against average in his last two starts against the Panthers - both in Florida.

Panthers netminder Jose Theodore has turned aside 50 of 53 shots in this series in 2011-12.

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