SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) For the Florida Panthers, the 52nd game of the season comes with an opening-night feel.
The lineup is finally whole.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov — two of the Panthers’ top offensive players and Jaromir Jagr‘s expected linemates entering the season — are back in the lineup, with their clearances being announced Friday before the Panthers played host to Anaheim. Huberdeau has been out since severing his Achilles tendon in the preseason, and Barkov missed more than a month while recovering from a back injury.
“Finally,” Panthers hockey operations president Dale Tallon said.
Barkov has nine goals and 18 assists in 36 games this season for Florida. Huberdeau had 59 points last season.
“Glad to be back,” Barkov said. “For me, the last month has been about working hard.”
Tallon said the severity of Huberdeau’s injury initially prompted fears that it could have been far worse. He got hurt in Florida’s preseason finale on Oct. 8 at West Point, New York.
Less than four months later, he’s back on the ice.
“The rehab went really well,” Huberdeau said. “For the last few weeks I’ve been feeling pretty good … and now I feel 100 percent and ready to go.”
The moves are timely for the Panthers, who entered Friday four points out of both the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and third place in the Atlantic Division. The top two wild-card teams and the top three in divisions make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We’re in a tough situation,” Tallon said. “We’ve got to win probably two out of every three games going the rest of the way. I’m very proud of our team for keeping themselves in the hunt with all the injuries and all the stuff that’s gone on this year. That shows a lot of character.”
Both were cleared for contact earlier this week and were back on the ice for practice in recent days – though it was believed that they still needed perhaps a couple of more weeks to get ready for games.
Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe lauded the effort of the team’s medical staff to get both players ready.
“It definitely helps,” Rowe said. “They’re part of the team. They’re not the whole team. We expect them to come in and play and help us shoot for a playoff spot.”