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Ice Breakers: Bruins-Panthers, Wednesday January 26th

The Bruins (27-15-7) wrap up their pre-All Star break schedule this evening, returning from the West Coast to host the Florida Panthers (22-21-5) at TD Garden.

Boston earned a split of their brief two-game westward journey, winning handily in Colorado Saturday, 6-2 over the Avalanche. Unfortunately, the B’s followed up that effort with a stinker, falling to the L.A. Kings 2-0 Monday night.

Florida has been sleepwalking through the first half of the season, wallowing in mediocrity. They sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, six points behind eighth place Atlanta for the final playoff spot. The Panthers go Garden-to-Garden tonight, after winning a 4-3 game last night in New York at Madison Square Garden, over the Rangers. Defenseman Mike Weaver, veteran of 388 NHL games, potted the game-winner in the third period, scoring just the seventh goal of his career. The goal came on what was the only Florida Panther shot recorded in the third period.

There’s no doubt that both teams would like to head into the All Star break on a high note, so let’s throw some pre-game notes your way to get you ready for tonight’s tilt on Causeway Street…

- The B’s are going for a season sweep of the Panthers tonight. Boston won all three prior meetings against Florida, winning 4-0, 3-1, and 3-2 in a shootout.

- When these two teams get together, it’s generally been a story of shutouts or shootouts. Five of the last ten meetings have ended in a shutout, while three of the last seven contests have gone to a shootout.

- The Bruins will head into the break in first place in the Northeast Division and third place in the Eastern Conference, whether they win tonight or not. They hold a slim two-point advantage on Montreal in the division, with Montreal already enjoying their All Star break.

- Florida’s team captain, defenseman Bryan McCabe, remains sidelined with facial fractures he sustained 10 days ago in a game. Otherwise, the Panthers are healthy. For Boston, only Marc Savard (concussion) is out of action.

- Scoring for the punchless Panthers is led by a trio of centers; Stephen Weiss (13G, 20A), Mike Santorelli (13G, 14A), and Michael Frolik (8G, 18A). Winger David Booth (14G, 12A) is tied for third on the team in points and leads Florida with his 14 goals.

- The goalie crease for Florida is manned by the tandem of Tomas Vokoun (17-15-3, 2.53GAA) and Scott Clemmensen (5-5-2, 2.43GAA). Vokoun was in goal last night for their win in New York, so it’s possible the Bruins may face backup Clemmensen this evening. According to early reports from the Bruins’ morning skate, all signs point to Tim Thomas getting tonight’s start for the good guys.

- Florida ranks dead last in the NHL with an anemic 11.4% power play.

- Lastly, it’s time to give a shout-out to “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, who celebrates his 50th birthday today. While his coaching career may have left a bit to be desired, no one can question his impact on the game of hockey. He’s pretty much Canada’s version of royalty, and he’s posted statistics that will probably never come close to being broken. His 2,857 career points dwarfs everyone else’s totals, and his single season records of 92 goals (1981-82), 163 assists (1985-86), and 215 points (1985-86) are virtually unreachable milestones in today’s NHL. The debate between whether Gretzky or Bobby Orr is the greatest player in NHL history can and will be debated for years to come, but for now, it’s time to wish #99 a very happy 50th birthday.

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