Lightning-Panthers Preview

The Associated Press

The Florida Panthers hope to keep their streaking top line together after Tomas Fleischmann took a hard hit in their last game.

The Panthers look to win four straight for the first time in more than three years when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night in the opener of a home-and-home series.

After finishing with an Eastern Conference-low 72 points in 2010-11, Florida (12-6-3) has been one of the league's biggest surprises this season. It's won six of eight, including three straight by one goal.

The Southeast Division-leading Panthers defeated the New York Rangers 2-1 on Wednesday. Jason Garrison and Kris Versteeg had goals in support of Jose Theodore's 19 saves.

Florida got a scare when Fleischmann, who assisted on both goals, took a hard elbow to the head. He left the bench for several minutes after the hit - which led to Andre Deveaux getting ejected - but returned late in the second period.

Fleischmann - the team's second-leading scorer with 22 points - was being evaluated after the game and did not speak.

"I was definitely scared," Versteeg, Fleischmann's linemate, told the Panthers' official website. "Flash is a big part of this team, and when any guy on this team goes down, your heart kind of drops."

The Panthers would like to be able to keep a healthy Fleischmann on the top line with Versteeg and Stephen Weiss. The trio has accounted for seven of the team's last nine goals.

Versteeg has three goals and three assists during that stretch. He has also had good success against the Lightning, recording three goals and three assists in three meetings this season.

Florida is looking to win four straight for the first time since a seven-game run March 2-16, 2008. It is 2-0-1 against the Lightning this season, losing 4-3 in a shootout Nov. 6 in the most recent meeting.

However, Tampa Bay (9-9-2) has lost four of five, getting outscored 19-5 in those four defeats. The Lightning had a tough end to a three-game homestand, losing 4-2 to New Jersey last Saturday and 7-1 to Toronto on Tuesday.

Dwayne Roloson was pulled after giving up six goals on 21 shots to the Maple Leafs. Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis were both career-worst minus-4 for the game.

The 42-year-old Roloson may finally be showing signs of age with a 3.46 goals-against average that ranks among the worst in the league. He's given up four or more goals in five of his eight starts this month and has been pulled in two of them.

Coach Guy Boucher said Roloson will get the night off Friday.

"Right now he's got a lot of games in a row, and he's going to get a break," Boucher said. "He's had a breather and practices before where he's had success, and all of a sudden he clears his mind and he's back on track. This is a great opportunity for him to master his game."

Mathieu Garon has one decision this month, with his last start coming in a 3-0 loss to St. Louis on Nov. 12. He is 3-3-1 with a 2.84 GAA this season and has allowed five goals in two starts against the Panthers.

The teams will meet again Saturday at St. Pete Times Forum. The Panthers have taken at least one point from their last five home games against the Lightning, going 3-0-2.

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