Panthers hanging on to division lead despite injuries to key players

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers haven’t had it easy over the past month. They’ve lost a total of 6 players to injuries, most of which happened in almost the same exact manner. Despite how important the players that went down were to the overall performance of the team, the Panthers have remained at the top of the Atlantic Division thanks to some solid efforts by call-ups from the AHL. 

The Panthers’ injury woes began when they placed Willie Mitchell on the injured reserve on January 22nd and subsequently recalled Dylan Olsen from the Portland Pirates on an emergency basis. Mitchell missed two straight team practices following a -4 effort in the team’s loss to the Edmonton Oilers on January 18th and has been out since with what is presumed to be a concussion, although that wasn’t discovered until a few weeks ago.

Yet another defenseman was lost when Erik Gudbranson went down with an upper-body injury which it’s believed he sustained during the Panthers’ 5-1 win against the Leafs on January 26th. He played in the team’s next two games against the Capitals on February 2nd and the Red Wings on February 4th, but has been out since, and the Panthers were forced to recall Brent Regner from the AHL.

Gudbranson, who has played tough minutes against the top players of the opponent all season long, is expected to return to the lineup on Thursday against the Coyotes after participating in a full team practice for the first time in weeks.

“Obviously it took a little longer than I expected,” said Gudbranson. “It’s tough to not be playing, to suddenly be out for 2-and-a-half, 3 weeks…I’ve been working hard and I’m starting to feel pretty good.”

Regner became the first of several call-ups who would make their NHL debut, as well as their Panthers debut, in the span of just a few weeks when he entered the lineup on February 6th against Pittsburgh.

“You gotta make the most of it,” said Regner. “I’m here, I’m excited to be here and keep moving forward.”

Regner didn’t blow anyone away by any means, but he did an admirable job especially considering he was playing in his first handful of NHL games. The 26-year old recorded no points and finished with a -2 rating in the 7 games he played in.

The injuries kept on coming with the next one being sustained by top-line center Aleksander Barkov on February 8th against the Red Wings. Barkov had his head down and was slightly hunched over while playing the puck when Justin Abdelkader drove right into him as seen in this video:

Much to the dismay of the Panthers, there was no penalty called on the play and Abdelkader did not face any supplemental discipline from the league. Barkov, who participated in his first team practice on Monday after skating for the past week on his own in an orange no-contact jersey, gave his thoughts on the hit that forced him to miss 6 straight games.

“I think it was just bad luck I got hit, I didn’t see him,” said Barkov. “I think it was just bad luck, it happens. It was the first time I got a concussion so I didn’t know what to think.”

Although he wasn’t playing, Barkov didn’t take any time off as he knew he needed to stay in shape in order to return to the lineup as soon as possible.

“Last 2 weeks I have been working hard. I’ve been biking, working out in the gym so I try to get better and stronger. I wanna work out hard so I feel good when I come back,” said Barkov.

When the 20-year old broke his hand in late October, the Panthers played 10 games without him and went 4-4-2. This time around, they went 3-2-1 in 6 games, and considering the team is 27-12-4 with him in the lineup, it’s safe to say he has a positive impact on its overall performance.

Barkov has recorded 16 goals and 19 assists in 43 games this season and was on a 4-game goal streak prior to the head injury. He’s also expected to return to the lineup on Thursday along with Gudbranson.

Barkov gave some advice for avoiding hits like the one he received: “If you keep your head up 99 times, it won’t happen…then if you put your head down once, it happens, so you just need to keep your head up all the time.”

To replace Barkov, the Panthers called up Garrett Wilson for the 2nd time this season on February 9th and also placed Erik Gudbranson on the injured reserve. Wilson was solid in his first stint back in November and earned another look with the Panthers. This time around, he’s come awfully close to netting his first career NHL goal several times and he’s look good on the 4th line. The Panthers looked to be fine after losing Barkov as they’d go on to defeat the Sabres 7-4 the night after, but apparently his loss wouldn’t be felt until the team returned home at the end of the week.

On February 12th, the Panthers decided to give another AHL player a chance to prove his worth. John McFarland got the call while Corban Knight was sent back to the Portland Pirates after having been scratched for several games prior. McFarland had 14 goals on the season for the Pirates and the Panthers hoped he could spark some offense and bring some energy to the lineup. He didn’t play the night he was called up, and the Panthers went on to lose to the Blues 5-3.

McFarland wouldn’t make his NHL debut until the next day when the Panthers faced the Predators on February 13th. The team played one of their worst games of the season and were shutout 5-0 making it the second straight game of allowing 5 goals which is something they haven’t done all year long.

“Obviously it was a dream come true to play here and put that jersey on, unfortunately not the result that I wanted, hopefully there’s more and we get a better result [next game],” said McFarland.

To add insult to injury, the Panthers lost two more players: Quinton Howden and Brandon Pirri. Howden was delivered a check to the head by Anthony Bitetto of the Predators while Brandon Pirri was pushed towards the end boards where his foot was caught angled up. Like Abdelkader, Bitetto did not face any supplemental discipline for his hit on Howden.

Pirri is expected to miss at least another week but probably a bit more than that, while Quinton Howden, who is thought to have sustained a concussion, could be back as soon as Thursday after participating fully in practice on Monday (albeit in a no-contact jersey).

“I think he’s gonna be [ready] pretty soon. I don’t know whether it’s Thursday or not, but he’s come a long way in a quick time,” said head coach Gerard Gallant on Monday.

The Panthers were undoubtedly frustrated with the effort they produced during both of the back-to-back home games which saw them get outscored 10-3, and they stood by the fact that there are no excuses, a phrase that is painted on the wall of the locker room at both the BB&T Center and the Ice Den, the Panthers’ practice facility.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in our lineup, we shouldn’t be giving up 5 goals,” said Brian Campbell after the loss. “It’s not just ’cause of a few call-ups that we’re allowing 5 goals. If we wanna lay down, we can, it doesn’t matter…guys gotta step up.”

With Pirri and Howden both out, the Panthers placed Aleksander Barkov on the injured reserve and recalled Greg McKegg from the AHL. The team then rallied together for a bounce-back win in their next game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that came from behind to defeat the Panthers a week earlier in overtime. Nick Bjugstad got back on the scoresheet, but the Penguins tied it in the 3rd period, and the game eventually went to a shootout where Jussi Jokinen and Al Montoya won it.

“We’ve got a good team [in Portland] and you see a lot of guys that have come up here have played well,” said McKegg after his Panthers debut. “It makes it a little more comfortable when you see familiar faces in the locker room.”

On Friday came the call-ups that most Panther fans had been waiting for: Kyle Rau and Mike Matheson. Both have been highly-touted prospects in the Panthers’ system for years and this season was their first in pro hockey. Kyle Rau holds the Portland Pirates’ team lead in goals with 17 while Mike Matheson leads the team with a +14 rating. We interviewed both players on Monday and you can check out what they had to say by clicking here.

Rau and Matheson made their NHL debuts on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets and seemed to fit right in. Rau was all around the net and even screened the goaltender which allowed a Reilly Smith slap shot to find its way into the back of the net on the power play.

“I really liked him, he’s exactly what they talked about. He’s a small guy but he gets in the dirty areas. He played hard, he got thrown into the net, he screened [the goalie] on the Smith goal on the power play…really liked his hockey smarts and his compete level,” said Gallant.

Matheson put his smooth skating ability on full display, as seen in the clip below,  and took care of his own end well.

“I thought [Matheson] was great, he skated real well, he moved the puck real well, he kept it simple and that’s what you have to do as a young player,” said Gallant on Monday. “I really liked his first game.”

The Panthers are now also without Jonathan Huberdeau for at least a week or two after he was checked into the boards by Jacob Trouba and hit his head on the ice in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Jets. Jussi Jokinen took his spot on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau during practice on Monday. A source has told Cats on the Prowl that Huberdeau sustained a concussion and isn’t likely to return until March 7th against the Bruins at the earliest.

Overall, the Panthers have been pretty happy with how the call-ups have stepped in and performed. One certainly can’t say they were all put into the best possible position to succeed, but when you’re trying to earn a spot in the NHL, you take every opportunity you can get. We’ve seen Vincent Trocheck step up and play a larger role with Barkov out of the lineup, and guys like Alex Petrovic, Aaron Ekblad, and Dmitry Kulikov have taken on slightly different workloads than they’re used to with Gudbranson and Mitchell out.

The Panthers have been in first place in the Atlantic Division since January 2nd, and were it not for players stepping up during times like these, they may not be in the position they are now. The Panthers are also 20-6-3 since December 15th and have outscored their opponents 88-63 which gives them an average of 3.03 goals for during that span. With less than two months left in the regular season, it’s just about crunch time as the Atlantic Division begins to tighten up.

Of course, one couldn’t have foreseen the amount of injuries that the Panthers have experienced over the past month, but this is one of the reasons why Dale Tallon went out and bolstered the team’s AHL squad, because you never know when you’ll need the depth. Not including Dave Bolland and Marc Savard, the Panthers have 103 total man-game lost to injury.

“All year long we’ve called up guys and they’ve done a good job for us, they compete hard for us and that’s all we ask,” said Gallant.

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