SUNRISE, Fla. – Mystery. Suspense. Confusion. Intrigue.
No, I’m not reviewing a new book or talking about the latest episode of The Last of Us on HBO.
I’m talking about the injury status of a couple of key Florida Panthers players and how it’s played out over the past few days.
The players are Florida’s top two centers, Sasha Barkov and Sam Bennett.
Barkov has been dealing with an apparent hand injury since being struck with a shot during the Panthers’ 7-1 win over Tampa back on Feb. 6, nearly three weeks ago.
He missed one game three days later against San Jose, but has played in each of the Florida’s six games since.
Bennett suffered a lower-body injury a week after Barkov was hurt, exiting the Panthers’ 6-2 loss at St. Louis during the second period. Bennett hasn’t played in a game since.
Fast forward to this week, with the team back in South Florida following an extended road trip, knowing they won’t have to travel much (other than a quick up and back to Tampa next week) over the next month.
The Panthers hosted Anaheim on Monday afternoon. Barkov was in the lineup. Bennett was not.
After the game, Head Coach Paul Maurice said “I think Bennett for sure is coming back” for their next game against Buffalo, which at the time was four days later.
No thought was given to Barkov because he played the entire game against the Ducks, and his hand seemed to be okay because he took 18 faceoffs, including the final faceoff of the game that began overtime.
Following an off day on Tuesday, the team took the ice for practice Wednesday morning at the big rink in Sunrise.
Bennett was on the ice and appeared to be a full participant. Barkov, however, was not out there. Also missing were Eric and Marc Staal.
Maurice was asked point blank after practice if Barkov was a candidate to miss any game time.
“No, he’ll be on full tomorrow, for sure,” Maurice replied, indicating Barkov would be a full participant in practice the following day.
Maurice also said, “when he steps on the ice against Buffalo”, while answering a different question about Barkov’s line, just to give an idea of the thought process surrounding Barkov’s ailment at the time.
As the week has progressed, it’s become clear that this is more fluid than it was either known by Maurice or that he led us to believe.
When practice took place Thursday at FLA Live Arena, Barkov was not on the ice, and neither was Bennett or Eric Staal.
Now taking into account that this is the team’s first opportunity in a while to have several days in South Florida to practice, or rest, or heal, without playing any games in between, this could simply be taking an extra-cautious approach with some key players ahead of the most important stretch of games of the season.
Or it could be more.
Speaking with Maurice after Thursday’s practice, he didn’t seem concerned with any of the absences.
“We’ve got some nicks here and we need to see how they get out of practice and come back the next day, so we’re not 100 percent on everybody. I’ll get a real good idea tomorrow after the morning skate,” Maurice said.
“They’re all okay,” he continued, “I’m just not sure they’re all playing tomorrow night.”
That brings us to Friday. Gameday.
Barkov was on the ice in a gold non-contact jersey before the Panthers optional morning skate. He didn’t stick around for the main workout, and Bennett wasn’t there either. Staal was.
A couple familiar faces from the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers were on the ice in Zac Dalpe and Grigori Denisenko, both recalled ahead of the Buffalo game. That wasn’t a good sign for the status of Florida’s top two centermen.
“Barkov and Bennett didn’t improve over the last few days, so I’ll list them as day-to-day,” Maurice said Friday morning.
He added that it’s possible Barkov and Bennett can play Tuesday’s game in Tampa.
“We’re fortunate we’ve got some days off here and can expect some healing, we just don’t want either of these to get to the point that it does take them out of the game for a block of time. We can’t afford that happening,” Maurice said. “They’re not that far off.”
Asked if either of Barkov or Bennett’s injury was something new, Maurice said it wasn’t, just a continuation of what they’ve been dealing with.
For Barkov, that would be the apparent hand injury. For Bennett, it’s a lower-body injury that Maurice initially said was something that Bennett had dealt with in the past.
The hope and likely scenario is that this week of mystery was simply that the team’s top two centers are dealing with minor, nagging injuries that are in different stages of the healing process and the team doesn’t want to rush anything.
As always, time will tell.
Regardless, the way that this has unfolded during Florida’s first extended time period at home in what must feel like ages has been less than ideal.
What’s also less than ideal is the Panthers losing their top two centers at a time where every game carries an equal amount of weight in a crowded playoff race.
Florida has managed to win two of the three games without Bennett over the past week, but maintaining that pace with Barkov also removed from the equation will be an extremely difficult task.
Perhaps Tuesday in Tampa this will all become moot.
It’s been a strange week though, and the odd series of events seemed to deserve some attention.