Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

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Panthers’ Trocheck nearing a return after broken ankle

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Florida Panthers desperately need a boost, and Vincent Trocheck has pronounced himself ready to provide one.

Barely eight weeks removed from surgery to repair the right ankle that he fractured by crashing into the boards during a game at Ottawa, Trocheck took part in a full practice Thursday for the first time since the injury happened. He’s been back on the ice for the last couple weeks, limited to either working out either on his own or with a small group.

”I’ve been pushing to play for the last couple weeks,” Trocheck said. ”So I don’t think it’s up to me at this point. It’s just a matter of whenever they give me the go-ahead. When I get back out there, it’ll be 100 percent me. Whenever they give me the go, I’ll be ready.”

He’ll likely miss only three more games before returning. The Panthers play Friday against Toronto, Saturday against Nashville and Monday against San Jose. The All-Star break follows that stretch, and when Florida resumes play on Feb. 1 it seems that barring a setback Trocheck will be back in the lineup.

”The doctors have basically said his healing process is back to where it should be, his cardio is back to where it should be, he’s ready to play as of right now,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”But we’re going to do the smart thing, obviously, and not rush him back until after the break. If it was Game 7 tonight, he’d be in.”

Trocheck had a series of checkmarks to hit before reaching this point. The first step was getting his cast removed after surgery, followed by having the ability to walk again, then some strength-building, then getting skates on and stepping back onto the ice. All that remains on the list now is suiting up for games.

”It was tough to see him go out,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said. ”But it’s nice to have him back.”

Trocheck can’t get back soon enough for Florida, which is facing a long road back into the playoff picture.

The Panthers have lost seven consecutive games, their longest slide since dropping nine straight early in the 2013-14 season. They started Thursday 14 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and even with roughly half the season left – 37 of their 82 games – they are, at best, highly doubtful to make a postseason appearance.

”I’m sure you can imagine, it’s been tough to watch,” Trocheck said. ”Win or lose, I want to be on the ice. It’s a matter of me wanting to be out there. It’s been a tough couple months.”

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Mike Hoffman didn’t need shootout to do the Forsberg move

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When your team is struggling (like the Florida Panthers are, what with a six-game losing streak), it’s easy for a player like Mike Hoffman‘s standout season to go under the radar. Especially when teammate Aleksander Barkov takes up a lot of the mainstream “underrated” talk, to the point where maybe that point is now overrated.

But that’s actually a point that makes the Panthers a little frustrating.

Barkov’s one of those guys who ranks as an elite, Selke-level forwards, and Hoffman put that Ottawa drama behind him to the tune of an impressive debut season with the Panthers.

He had a heck of a streak going earlier in 2018-19, and Hoffman appears slated to crush his career-high goals total of 29 from 2015-16. Hoffman’s going to have trouble topping his 22nd tally of this season, as he dusted off the awesome Peter Forsberg shootout move … but against opposing defenders. Impressive.

This leaves Hoffman with 22 goals and 41 points with some time remaining in his 45th game. His career-high for points (61 in 2016-17) is also very much in play, even if he cools off his career-best pace.

The Panthers game was also noteworthy for this hit by Paul Byron, which only netted a two-minute penalty. Should it draw supplemental discipline? (UPDATE: Byron will have a Wednesday hearing with the Department of Player Safety.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers’ Trocheck back on ice, continuing ankle rehab

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck was back on the ice and skating Friday, barely six weeks removed from fracturing his right ankle.

The team released a photo of Trocheck on the ice before the team practiced. There is still no timetable for his return.

Trocheck had three goals and 11 assists in 18 games before he got hurt in a gruesome scene after crashing into the boards at Ottawa on Nov. 19, and had surgery to repair the fracture two days later. Trocheck has said that he plans on returning to the team this season.

He had career-highs of 31 goals and 44 assists for the Panthers last season.

MORE: Panthers’ Trocheck stretchered off after suffering leg injury

Panthers’ Weegar gets misconduct penalty after abuse of officials

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Here’s in a lesson in not swinging your stick around when there’s a linesman escorting you to the penalty box.

Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was on the receiving end of a 10-minute misconduct for abuse of an official after his frustrations boiled over against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Weegar was incensed that a penalty wasn’t called after he was boarded by Maple Leafs forward Tyler Ennis. Weegar was slow to get up and when he did, he began spamming cross-checks to anyone within striking distance, including several to Ennis, one of which appeared to catch Ennis in the neck.

As he was getting taken to the box on a four-minute double minor for the cross-checking, Weegar slammed his stick against the glass near the penalty box. The stick appeared to catch the linesman Jonny Murray in the helmet.

The whole ordeal can be seen here:

Weegar got a stern talking to by referee Chris Rooney before he was sent to the locker room to serve out his misconduct.

Toronto, who were down 2-0 at that point, was unable to score on the extended power play.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck