With the way things have been going of late, it's hard to believe the Panthers actually seem excited about their upcoming schedule.
In the next week, the Panthers won't be playing any of the league's bottom feeders. Instead, Florida gets some of the NHL's best.
The Panthers begin a four-game run Sunday afternoon against teams that are either leading their division or close to it.
San Jose, Sunday's opponent, has won nine of its past 11 games. The Sharks' loss to New Jersey on Friday was San Jose's first in regulation since Jan. 15. The Sharks came into Saturday trailing Dallas by two points in the race for the Pacific Division title. San Jose is the only of Florida's next four opponents to not be atop their division.
“I think this is a great opportunity. We're playing the best teams in the league and we're going to find out where we're at,'' defenseman Mike Weaver said. “As a player, you don't want to play in the boring games. You want to play against the best. You want to challenge yourself. You have to go through these teams in the end anyway. It's a great challenge for us and I'm looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun.''
The Panthers have lost nine of their past 11 games but have usually fared well against the league's better teams – especially those elite teams coming up.
Florida will play host to San Jose, Philadelphia (Wednesday) and Detroit (Friday). The Panthers won in San Jose last season and have split the two games played in Philadelphia this season. Florida won in Detroit last year, the first time the Panthers have done so since 1996.
And playing those three teams at home doesn't really matter much. San Jose, Philadelphia and Detroit came into Saturday tied for the league lead with 17 road wins apiece.
On Saturday, the Panthers visit Tampa Bay. Florida has won two of three against the Southeast-leading Lightning this season.
With the playoffs still a remote possibility, Florida needs every win it can get. This is probably not the best way about getting them.
“This is a big test for us. San Jose, the way they're playing, might be the best team in the league,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “We have four of the top 10 teams in the league on our plate this week. It's a good test. We've risen to the occasion when playing the top teams this season. Our attention to detail has to be in the right spot.''
Added Stephen Weiss: “This is going to be fun. You want to play those teams at this time of year. If you want to get in, you have to get through the best teams. I'm looking forward to it. It's a challenge, but we're all excited. It's different playing teams like Philly, Detroit, San Jose. You have to bring everything you have, be sharp or they'll make you look pretty bad.''
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov won't play Sunday because of his injured ankle, but winger Cory Stillman will be back in the lineup.
Stillman participated in his second straight practice and was back on his usual line with Marty Reasoner and Radek Dvorak.
Defenseman Bryan McCabe took part in a full practice Saturday but is still a few days away from returning. McCabe has missed the past 11 games because of a broken jaw suffered during a game Jan. 15 against the Devils.
“He's working through some things but it's a big difference between going in a day-before practice and playing in a game,'' DeBoer said. “He's lost some weight and his game legs aren't there. But he's close. As hard as he works, he'll be back sooner than later.''
With Kulikov out, the Panthers recalled defenseman Joe Callahan – who played in one game for the Sharks last season – from their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
SUNDAY: SHARKS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 5 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center
TV/Radio: FSNF; WKIS 99.9 FM
The series: Sharks lead 9-6-7
The game: Florida has won the past two meetings against the Sharks with the Panthers winning on Bryan Allen's overtime shot last March. The Panthers are 5-7-1 against Western Conference teams this season, and have won just one of four games against teams (Phoenix) from the Pacific Division. While San Jose is tied for the league lead in road wins, the Panthers 11 home wins are fourth-lowest in the NHL.
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Bad News for Florida Panthers: NHL's Best Teams Coming to Sunrise ... Dmitry Kulikov OUT v Sharks, Joe Callahan On Way