Bruins host Panthers in clash between first-place teams

Beantown will take center stage in the NHL tonight with a place clubs squaring off at TD Garden, where the defending champion Boston Bruins will entertain the Florida Panthers.

Boston is first in the Northeast Division -- seven points ahead of both Toronto and Ottawa -- and has won five straight and 19 of its last 22 contests (19-2-1). The sizzling Bruins recently handed the Montreal Canadiens a 3-2 setback, as Brad Marchand's third-period goal proved to be the difference.

Benoit Pouliot and David Krejci also scored for the Bruins, who got 33 saves from Tim Thomas and pushed their home record to 12-6-1 on the season. The 12 wins at home are tied with Winnipeg for the NHL lead. Thomas has won his last three appearances and is 13-1-0 in his last 14 decisions.

"It's a team effort here from start to finish," said Krejci. "We have a deep enough roster that when we have injuries we can have guys step up and fit right in."

After tonight's game Boston will hit the road for three contests against the Coyotes, Stars and Devils. The Bruins are 17-0-0 this season when leading after two periods and 10-1-1 in their last 12 home games.

On the injury front for the Bruins, defenseman Andrew Ference (flu) is questionable, center Rich Peverley (undisclosed) is doubtful and forward Milan Lucic (one-game suspension served) is listed as probable. Lucic was penalized for a hit he put on Philadelphia's Zac Rinaldo on Saturday.

"I can't change my game," Lucic said on the team's site. "I play with a lot of emotion and I do everything I can to keep it safe and follow the guidelines of the new hitting protocol.

"A big part of my game is being physical and creating emotion and I can't lose that for sure."

Florida still owns a comfortable lead atop the Southeast Division at six points ahead of Winnipeg, but has lost two straight and five of seven games.

In a 4-3 overtime loss at Ottawa on Thursday, Bobby Butler scored the game- winning goal to lead the Senators. Michal Repik, Shawn Matthias and Tomas Kopecky scored for Florida, which will open a three-game homestand next week against the Maple Leafs, Rangers and Canadiens.

"It's tough; they're a good hockey club," Matthias said of the Habs on the team's site. "They came at us with everything they had. I think we got stuck in their game plan a little bit. We play a run-and-gun style, and that's what cost us in the end. We've got a game tomorrow, so we just have to forget about it and focus."

Scott Clemmensen allowed all four goals on 26 shots to take the loss. Kris Versteeg has four goals and five assists in his last eight games for the Panthers. Panthers forwards Sean Bergenheim (lower body), Mikael Samuelsson (upper body) and Marco Sturm (leg) did not play against Ottawa.

The Panthers have points in eight of their last 10 games and defeated Boston, 2-0, in the first matchup this season on Dec. 8 at TD Garden. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak in the series against the Bruins, who have won seven of the previous 10 matchups with Florida.