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Florida Panthers Special Teams on a Roll ... Chris Higgins Has "Setback" ... Tomas Vokoun Back Vs. Blue Jackets

Olindo The Panthers head into Wednesday's game against Columbus with wins in three of their past four games and seven of an available eight points.

One big reason for Florida's upsurge over the past week has been the play of its special teams.

Not only has the Panthers penalty play been consistently strong, but Florida's beleaguered power play is finding its way as well. The Panthers, which has had the league's worst power play for almost the entire season, are close to climbing out of the cellar after scoring seven goals in the past four games.

“It's critical,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “We're good 5-on-5 so if we can be good on both sides of special teams, we're a hard team to play against. You'll win a lot of games if you can do that. The thing is to do it consistently. Everyone knows we struggled with the power play but we wanted to wipe the slate and start fresh in the second half. We have done that and are being rewarded.''

The Panthers penalty kill has been the team's strong suit since the preseason but nothing like it has been of late. Florida has killed off 15 consecutive penalties and since Jan. 2, have given up just two goals on 32 chances.

Florida came into Tuesday with the league's third best penalty kill, denying the opposition a goal 85.5 percent of the time.

Wideman Yet it's the Panthers power play that has been receiving much of the press throughout the season – and not in a good way. Florida was on pace to not only set the franchise record for fewest power play goals (less even than the 44-game strike season of 1994-95) but be one of the lowest-scoring power plays in league history.

The Panthers had two 5-on-3 chances and one 4-on-3 in overtime during last week's victory over the Capitals, Florida scoring three power play goals for the first time this season. The Panthers came back with two power play goals in Monday's loss to the Thrashers. Coming into the Capitals game, Florida had a mere 12 power play goals in 40 games, putting it on pace for 25 through the 82 game season.

After the recent up tick in goals, the Panthers are now on schedule to score 35 this season. That's still bad enough to set the franchise record, but definitely showing signs of improvement -- and allowing power play coach Jim Hulton to sleep a little better. Defensemen Dennis Wideman (three power play goals) and Dmitry Kulikov (one) have definitely helped.

“I think confidence is such a big part of it, even though they are pros,'' Hulton said. “When you keep reading about it, it becomes self-perpetuating. We were in a bad spot for quite a while and I think the 5-on-3s really were a springboard into this. It gives us something to build on. You're seeing more crisp passes and better shot selection. And the puck is getting into the net.''

Higgins -- DeBoer said that injured winger Chris Higgins “had a little setback off the ice” and that he will continue to be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.

Higgins has missed the past five games with a strained hamstring. DeBoer said with the team winning, there has been no thought to “shake anything up” and bring up another forward from the minors.

“We've taken a step back with [the injury],'' DeBoer said. “I don't know when he's going to start skating again. Whenever it starts to feel better. We're still a ways away.''

Vokounweiss -- Tomas Vokoun's three-game stint on the end of the Panthers bench is over. DeBoer confirmed on Tuesday that Vokoun would be back in net Wednesday against the Blue Jackets. Backup Scott Clemmensen went 2-0-1 in place of Vokoun.

“Clemmensen did a great job, did exactly what a backup goalie should do,'' DeBoer said. “He gave us a good stretch of games, got us seven of eight points and played with a lot of energy. Now Vokoun has got to grab it and go again.''

Jackets WEDNESDAY: BLUE JACKETS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSNF; WFTL 640
The series: Columbus leads 5-4-0
The game: Goalie Tomas Vokoun spent a big part of his career in the Western Conference and did a lot of beating up on the Blue Jackets in the process. Vokoun, who retakes the Panthers starting position, is 19-8-1 against Columbus. .-.-. Rimer The Panthers haven't beaten Columbus at home since 2004. .-.-. The Blue Jackets had lost six of seven going into Tuesday's game at Tampa Bay.

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Something else to consider: while they are at the bottom in PP%, they're also close to the bottom in power play opportunities with 154 (#27) in 44 games. Only NSH, OTT, and NJ have had fewer.

Here's how the rest of the division is doing in power play opportunities:

#18 Washington 166 in 46 games
#8 Atlanta 177 in 48 games
#4 Carolina 186 (no surprise there) in 45 games
#1 Tampa Bay 197 (!) in 46 games.

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