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PREVIEW: Struggling Predators set to visit red-hot Panthers

Jan 31, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (left) fights for position in front of the net against Detroit Red Wings defenseman Troy Stecher (right) during the third period at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators, who started this week with the worst penalty kill in the NHL, are set to visit the red-hot Florida Panthers on Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla.

Nashville, which has lost two straight games — both at the Tampa Bay Lightning — has a penalty-kill success rate of just 64.9 percent. On Monday, the Predators allowed one power-play goal and fell behind 4-0 into the second period of what became a 5-2 loss.

“We did not have a great start,” Predators captain Roman Josi said in an understatement. “I don’t think the game was as bad as the score, but we gave (Tampa Bay) too many chances. We gave them too many great looks.”

Read More: RECAP: Yanni Gourde scores twice as Lightning top Predators

Florida, which is off to a 5-0-1 start, is fifth in the NHL in power-play goals per game, which will test a Nashville weakness.

On the other side of special teams, Florida is 9-for-10 on its penalty kill over the past three games.

“I think we’ve learned,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “Our PK the past couple of games has been excellent.”

Read More: RECAP: Florida Panthers stay hot with triumph over Red Wings

The Panthers are getting great goaltending, especially from backup Chris Driedger (2-0-1). He has a .937 save percentage and a 1.95 goals-against percentage. Starter Sergei Bobrovsky (3-0-0) has an .894 save percentage and a 2.87 GAA.

Offensively, two newcomers to the Panthers lead in goals with five each: Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe. Each of them has two assists, and Hornqvist also has a team-high three power-play goals.

In terms of points, Hornqvist, Verhaeghe and two long-time Panthers mainstays — Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — are tied at seven.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Predators, check out #ForSmashville rumors, rankings, and news here.

The Panthers have been off since Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. That completed a two-game sweep over the Wings that started with Saturday’s 3-2 overtime victory. That game ended with a goal by Aleksi Heponiemi, a 5-foot-10, 155-pounder who made his NHL debut.

Heponiemi became just the fourth player in NHL history to get his first goal in overtime.

“I don’t know what to say,” was the first comment by Heponiemi, who then added: “It’s an amazing feeling.”

When a team is hot like the Panthers are right now, those are the magical moments that happen. Heponiemi is only 22, and he is not some “can’t miss” prospect — he was drafted in the second round in 2017.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Panthers, check out #FlaPanthers rumors, rankings, and news here.

But Quenneville played a hunch and put him out on the ice for OT.

“We were pleased with what we saw,” Quenneville said by way of explanation. “Give the kid credit.”

Meanwhile, the Predators are in dire need of a win. Their goaltending tandem of Juuse Saros (3-3-0, .908 SP, 2.82 GAA) and Pekka Rinne (1-2-0, .869 SP, 3.31 GAA) has been solid.

However, the Predators are averaging just 2.33 goals per game, and that average is even worse over their past seven contests (1.86). Their only two wins in that seven-game span were in overtime and a shootout, and the Predators haven’t been ahead at the end of regulation in more than two weeks.

Filip Forsberg leads the team with four goals. Viktor Arvidsson tops the team with four assists, and the two of them are tied for the points lead with six.

–Field Level Media