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Florida Panthers face the Carolina Hurricanes in key Central series

Apr 4, 2021; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA;  Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek (34) and defenseman Jaccob Slavin (74) and center Vincent Trocheck (16) celebrate the win against the Dallas Stars at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 4, 2021; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek (34) and defenseman Jaccob Slavin (74) and center Vincent Trocheck (16) celebrate the win against the Dallas Stars at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes carry a bunch of positive feelings into Raleigh, N.C., for their Tuesday and Thursday meetings, with the top spot in the Central Division in the balance.

Of the first four meetings between the teams this season, three have gone to overtime, with Carolina winning once in regulation and twice in overtime (one via shootout).

Yet, Florida has won six games in a row, leading goalie Chris Driedger to say, “I think our team has been playing fantastic. It has been a lot of fun.”

The Panthers moved into first place in the division Sunday by defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-0, moving two points ahead of Tampa Bay and keeping them three points in front of Carolina. Both those teams have games in hand, so the Panthers know they can’t afford to slip.

The Hurricanes, too, are coming off a shutout triumph, and their optimism is bolstered by the Sunday return of goalie Petr Mrazek from an absence of more than two months following surgery on his right thumb. Mrazek made 28 saves in the 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars.

“It has to be great for his confidence,” Carolina forward Vincent Trocheck said.

It’s also bringing more questions for the Hurricanes, who have relied on James Reimer and Alex Nedeljkovic for strong performances in Mrazek’s absence.

“We’re going to take a day here and regroup on it,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s great to know that Petr is back as far as (being) sharp.”

It’s unclear how the Hurricanes will sort out the goalie situation. Reimer, who holds a 14-4-1 record this season, was the backup for the two weekend home games Carolina split with Dallas.

Mrazek has three victories this season — all shutouts. Dating to records available going back to the 1943-44 season, only six goalies in NHL history have notched shutouts in each of their first three wins of a season.

“What kind of workload do you give him?” Brind’Amour said. “We’ll kind of figure it out.”

Mrazek is only the second goaltender in franchise history — Arturs Irbe is the other — with at least three shutouts in three consecutive seasons.

“It has been a long journey,” Mrazek said of getting back on NHL ice following the injury.

The Panthers, meantime, have outscored their last six opponents, 23-9.

“We’re playing the right way, enjoying playing the right way,” Florida forward Aleksander Barkov said.

Driedger said his teammates have set a good tone in front of him, noting that the Panthers need to maintain the same temperament even as the games become increasingly crucial.

“I just try to do the same stuff every game,” Driedger said.

That’s something that has worked for Florida.

“The harder you work, the more fun you’re going to have,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “Obviously, the game is all about winning.”

Carolina received a boost when winger Jordan Martinook scored just his second goal of the season, a tally that ended up being the game’s only scoring Sunday. His other goal came Feb. 13.

Martinook is considered one of the players who brings energy for Carolina. Another of those players might not be available this week, with the injury concerns of winger Brock McGinn, who exited Sunday’s game with an upper-body injury.

“This one doesn’t look good,” Brind’Amour said.

–Field Level Media