The Hurricanes will host the Florida Panthers in what has been almost jokingly called a ‘Southeast Showdown” for some time. However, tonight, the match-up is as billed. The Florida Panthers hop scotched over Carolina earlier this week after erasing a three-goal deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs (oh, Toronto…) and winning in overtime. They now sit in that beautiful, elusive eight-seed and look to be the spoilers to the ‘Canes’ return to the playoffs. They are a point ahead and have a game in hand.

The Panthers have had trouble winning in the RBC Center this decade, and went through a stretch from 2002-2008 where they couldn’t win a single game in the ‘Canes’ barn. However, as we’ve seen, they’ve gotten very good at beating the ‘Canes when it actually matters. The Little Kitties that Could have vastly improved this season, and even without marquee players on offense, they have outscored the Hurricanes by 10 total goals at this point in the season. They are first in the league in defensive scoring as well, which doesn’t hurt.

Last year, it was Washington that wrecked the ‘Canes’ party. The Panthers saw how fun it looked and decided that they wanted to give it a try. Unless things change dramatically very soon, the Panthers look to be the Hurricanes’ primary competitor down the stretch, as Pittsburgh can’t seem to get it together.

The Hurricanes and Panthers have split the season series, each winning both games at home, and this is the two teams’ final match-up at the RBC Center this year. It’s what they call a ‘four-point” game because it can have such an impact on the standings (unless it goes to overtime) and the ‘Canes need to close the deal. Even if the standings don’t worry you (it is February, after all) the Hurricanes need to show that they can perform when the pressure is on, something they showed signs of doing against western powerhouse San Jose. Rod Brind’Amour will be back in the line-up, ready to lead the team into action…and possibly improve his plus/minus? Dare to dream, right?

One last thing: it’s hard to believe that it has crept up on us, but the trade deadline is just around the corner. March 4 is only three weeks away. I expect Jim Rutherford to shuffle his deck a little before then, something he hasn’t done the past few years. Maybe he’ll realize that and go free agent shopping; he has mentioned it in interviews. We’ll see. Keep checking Triangle Offense and these next few weeks, just in case.