Friday felt like the start of a new season for the Panthers. No, we didn’t somehow go back in time to October or fast-forward through what was feeling like “one of those years” in order to arrive at next season.
For the first time in seemingly forever, the Panthers iced a completely healthy lineup which included Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, who were activated off the injured reserve on Friday morning.
Both suited up for the team’s final game prior to a nearly week-long bye which begins Saturday and ends when the Panthers play host to the Kings on Thursday.
Huberdeau suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury in the team’s final game of the preseason against the New Jersey Devils at West Point, and he went on to miss the first 51 games of the season.
After undergoing surgery, his recovery was estimated at 3-to-4 months, and he resumed skating in mid-December before joining the team practices over the past couple of weeks while sporting a non-contact jersey.
Aleksander Barkov missed over a month with a lingering back injury after leaving the Panthers’ game against the Leafs early on December 28th. He too had been skating in a non-contact jersey for the past several weeks and recently joined the team fully.
Huberdeau and Barkov traded in those bright yellow jerseys for normal red sweaters on Wednesday as they participated in a team practice with no limitations for the first time before being cleared to play on Friday.
Their impacts were felt immediately as Barkov fed his 23-year old line-mate for his first goal of the season, and it ended up as the game-winner thanks to a stellar performance in net by James Reimer and a solid defensive effort in front of him.
The Panthers have now won 3 games in a row for the first time this season.
Anaheim entered the night as the Pacific Division’s 2nd-best team behind the Sharks and had won 4 of their last 6 games.
“When you miss four months of playing, your first goal is always special,” said Huberdeau of his goal. “I think that’s the way it was tonight. I kind of fanned on it, too, and it went in. I think it felt pretty good. Now, it’s just focusing on getting better and stronger.”
Reimer made 22 saves on 23 shots en route to his 100th career win and 5th in his last 7 starts. The 28-year old netminder has the best save percentage in the NHL since December 13th at 0.936.
“I thought it was probably one of the best games we’ve played as a team all season,” said Reimer, who’s wife gave birth to their first child on Tuesday. “I think, you know, we limited chances and, you know, obviously a good team, they’re getting a few [chances] here and there. But I thought we controlled a lot of what the chances were.”
Reilly Smith scored the other Panthers goal, and it came just 13 seconds after the Ducks opened the scoring on a marker by Hampus Lindholm in the 1st period. Jason Demers took a pass from Keith Yandle up the ice and found Smith at the front of the net with a perfect feed from below the goal-line.
The man-advantage wasn’t a strong point for either team as the Panthers and Ducks went 0-for-5 and 0-for-3 respectively and despite Florida having a full 2-minute 5-on-3 opportunity.
Huberdeau and Barkov, who were back with Jaromir Jagr, were on the ice for 9 scoring chances for and just 3 against while orchestrating an impressive 3rd-period shift where they pinned the Ducks in their zone for nearly a minute-and-a-half.
“They were unbelievable,” said head coach Tom Rowe. “We kept watching their fatigue level on the bench. [Panthers assistant coach] Dave Barr and I were talking a bit back and forth. He said, ‘Hey, they’re looking good, so let’s keep rolling them out there.’”
“I think we skipped over them two shifts and that was it. Other than that, they were unbelievable for the amount of time, especially [Huberdeau], they’ve been out.”
|Post-game notes: The Panthers assigned F Paul Thompson to the Springfield Thunderbirds (AHL) on Friday afternoon. He cleared waivers on Wednesday but remained with the team until Barkov and Huberdeau were activated off the injured reserve. … D Mike Matheson led all Florida skaters in ice time with 22:00 logged.|