SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers emerged from the holiday break as healthy as they’ve been since training camp.
After shuffling nearly a dozen players in and out of COVID-19 protocols over the past several weeks, a replenished Florida roster resumed its post-Christmas schedule with back-to-back home games against two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
It was a chance for the Cats, who dropped three straight prior to the pause while missing several key players due to Covid and injuries, to make a statement that they were still a force to be reckoned with.
And that they did.
Florida captain Sasha Barkov and forward Mason Marchment returned during Wednesday’s come from behind 4-3 win over the New York Rangers after each missed extended time on Injured Reserve, and all but two of the 11 players who spent time in the Covid protocol were back in the Panthers lineup as well.
Only forward Owen Tippett, who has been practicing with the team this week, and defenseman Olli Juolevi remain on that list.
Thursday night the Panthers welcomed their arch nemesis and cross state rival to South Florida.
Before the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning knew what hit them, Florida had jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead on goals by Anthony Duclair, his second in as many nights, Jonathan Huberdeau and Frank Vatrano.
The Panthers added three more goals during the middle frame, including a pair over the final 2:34 by Maxim Mamin and rookie Anton Lundell to give Florida a 6-2 advantage after 40 minutes.
Lundell also scored during Wednesday’s win over the Rangers.
“It feels pretty good,” the 20-year-old said following Thursday’s game. “I always get more confidence and more motivation from the goals.”
Duclair would add another marker in the third period, giving him twelve on the season. His first period goal was also the 100th of his NHL career.
“He’s unreal,” Barkov said of Duclair. “He’s a great, great hockey player and a great guy. He’s always dangerous. He’s always there to score a goal, to get a breakaway or to make nice plays.”
Aaron Ekblad’s ninth goal of the season turned out to be Florida’s last tally of the night, though it did inspire fans in the building to chant “We want 10″ as the final minutes ticked off the clock.
“It was cool, the place was buzzing tonight,” said Huberdeau. “It was cool to see that. The fans, the wave, everything was going.”
Huberdeau finished the night with five points, including a gorgeous spin-o-rama assist on Ekblad’s tally.
Through 31 games, Huberdeau leads all Panthers with 38 points (11-27-38).
“We played a hell of a game,” Huberdeau said. “It was good for us to get a couple back-to-back wins at home.”
Panthers rookie goaltender Spencer Knight was kept busy in the crease by Tampa, turning aside 39 shots en route to the 9-3 win.
For Knight, it was his first win over his past four starts.
Florida improved to 20-7-4 on the season, but what’s really impressive is the 16-3-0 mark at FLA Live Arena.
Now finally featuring an (almost) fully healthy lineup, the Panthers are looking to get on a roll as they enter 2022 among the NHL’s top teams.
“We got everyone back, had a couple of good practices during the break and now we’re playing some good hockey, but we know we can be better, and we can build from this,” said Barkov.
Florida will be back in action on New Year’s Day when they host the Montreal Canadiens at 1 p.m.