Not only did the Panthers lose their game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night, but they also lost their top-line center Aleksander Barkov to a freak injury. Fortunately, however, he’ll only be out for 3-4 weeks, but during that time, players will need to step up and produce complete efforts on the ice.
The 20-year-old Finn went down to block a Niklas Hjalmarsson, but it ended up catching his right hand which was extended out like a goalie’s catching glove trying to make a save. He remained on the ice briefly as the puck was still in the defensive zone, but when he returned to the bench, it became clear that he could barely flex his hand. He went down the tunnel after making some frustrated expressions and did not return to the game. Barkov met with a doctor on Monday morning and beat writer George Richards tweeted (above) that the young center will be out 2-4 weeks and won’t need surgery on his hand which is great for the Panthers. The players made it clear during post-game interviews that they’d all have to step up to account for the loss of arguably their best player.
“It’s a big loss. He’s our best player,’’ said Jaromir Jagr on the injury to Barkov.
Barkov was also injured while blocking a shot against the Blue Jackets on December 1st of last year and missed a total of 6 games. He’s been off to a great start this season tallying three goals and three assists in 7 games and looking masterful on the defensive side of things. His skating is much improved and he’s benefited from playing with Jagr and Huberdeau as the line has picked off where they left off at the end of last season totaling 15 points in the first 7 games. They combined for 54 points in the final 21 games last year after acquiring Jagr just before the trade deadline. Barkov has also been a puck possession monster and has been noticeably stronger on the puck along the boards and when moving it up the ice. He’s got 19 shots this season through 7 games whereas it took him until game number 13 to reach the same mark last season.
“He’s been our best player since the beginning of the season,” said head coach Gerard Gallant after the team’s pre-game skate on Friday morning.
The Panthers proved on Saturday that they’ll be able to produce and win games without Barkov in the lineup by defeating the Dallas Stars, who are the second-best team in the league, by a score of 6-2. They did it with 6 different goal scorers, four players with multi-point games, and three different forward lines compared to opening night when they won 7-1 against the Flyers. Nick Bjugstad moved up to take Barkov’s top-line spot between Huberdeau and Jagr, Vincent Trocheck slotted in as the second-line center between Brandon Pirri and Quinton Howden, and the third line had Dave Bolland centering Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith. Trocheck called Saturday night’s game a “must win,” and the Panthers were able to salvage two more points in the final game of the road-trip.
Al Montoya noted that “it wasn’t the ‘wait around see what happens’ game like we’ve been playing the last few,’’ but rather they took it to the Stars and then didn’t fall asleep after that. It was an important win after losing three straight and to do it against a highly offensive team like the Stars makes it feel even better. The loss of Barkov will be an early season test for the Panthers as he’s a huge part of the team’s forward – an defensive – corps. Players will need to step up and do their part without worrying about who’s out of the lineup. Losing Barkov does not mean the season is over for the Panthers as this is just one of the many reasons why GM Dale Tallon and Co. have been stockpiling depth players and high-quality prospects. The Panthers have guys like Rocco Grimaldi, Kyle Rau, Shane Harper, and Greg McKegg waiting in the wings for when moments like these arise.