PANTHERS (26-35-8) at COYOTES (33-25-11)
Season series: This is the second and final game between the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes. Phoenix won 3-1 at BB&T Center on March 11.
Big story: After spending much of the season jockeying for position from the back of the pack, the Coyotes have jumped into the final Stanley Cup Playoff position in the Western Conference. They'll look to build a bigger lead on their competitors for the conference's second wild-card spot when they get a rare visit from the Panthers, who have won two of their past three games.
Coyotes: On Monday, Phoenix became the first team this season to come back and win a game the Los Angeles Kings led going into the third period. Phoenix scored twice in the third period, capped by Jeff Halpern's game-winner with 3:05 remaining, to break the Kings' streak of 21 straight wins this season when leading after two -- and lifting the Coyotes into the West's final wild-card spot in the process.
The Coyotes lead the Dallas Stars by two points for the final wild-card spot, though Dallas does have a game in hand. There is also a chance the Coyotes could catch the Minnesota Wild, whom they trail by five points, for the first of the two wild cards.
Phoenix is riding a five-game point streak vs. Florida and has not lost in regulation to the Panthers since Feb. 10, 2007.
"They're a team with guys playing for jobs," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "They're playing desperate and trying to finish out the season well. When you get a team that's playing loose and playing hard for jobs, it makes them very dangerous. I expect us to play like a mature, hard-working team that's in a playoff push. It doesn't matter who you're playing against now whether it's a playoff team or not a playoff team. It's how we play and how we need points if we're going to be a playoff team."
Forward Martin Erat is expected to return to the lineup after missing three games because of an upper-body injury. If he does play it is expected he will play on a line with fellow Czechs Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata for the first time.
"We didn't have any training camp, we didn't have any games," Erat said about the debut of the all-Czech line. "But I know the players. I know Marty. I know Radim -- what they can do on the ice. It makes it much easier to read them when you know them."
Tippett said he'll be watching the chemistry of the line closely.
"Good lines just don't happen when you write their names on the paper," Tippett said. "In this case, just because they're three Czechs doesn't mean all of a sudden it's going to work. They'll have to see how it goes. Hopefully, things gel with them and make our lineup better, but if it doesn't, we'll read and react from there."
Mike Smith will make his 10th straight start. He is 6-3-1 in those games and is 16-9-3 in 30 home games this season.
Jumping into playoff position was the culmination of a particularly strong month for Phoenix, which has won six of its past eight games. Keeping that spot could be difficult, however, as the Coyotes face a tough upcoming schedule. After hosting Florida, Phoenix will host the Boston Bruins before heading east to visit the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils.
Panthers: The 2013-14 season hasn't been one to remember for Florida, but the Panthers may be making some strides in the final month. General manager Dale Tallon made one of the biggest moves near the NHL Trade Deadline by bringing goalie Roberto Luongo back to Florida, a deal that is already paying dividends. The Panthers are 2-0-1 in their past three games with the shootout loss coming against Luongo's former team, the Vancouver Canucks.
On Tuesday, Florida opened what should be a challenging road trip by ending the San Jose Sharks' six-game winning streak courtesy of a 52-save outing by Luongo, which included 28 saves in the third period alone.
"Some days you feel it more than others," Luongo said after the 3-2 win. "Even this morning at practice I felt good, even though I was off yesterday. You just have that feeling sometimes when you know you're going to play well. I've always enjoyed playing in this building. It was a fun game."
The Panthers' four-game trip will also pit them against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks after their visit to Phoenix.
Who's hot: Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle has a goal and eight assists in the past seven games... Panthers forward Quinton Howdon has played just four games this season, but he's notched a point in each of them, scoring three goals and adding an assist.
Injury report: Coyotes defenseman David Schlemko (lower body) is out... Panthers forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (upper body) and Sean Bergenheim (lower body) are questionable, as is defenseman Erik Gudbranson (knee). Forwards Tomas Kopecky (concussion) and Aleksander Barkov (knee) remain out.
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