SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers say they missed Sasha Barkov and Sam Bennett dearly when they were out of the lineup.
Florida has alternated wins and losses in the 11 games since Barkov has gone in-and-out of the lineup with a hand injury sustained on Feb. 6.
Barkov was joined by Bennett after sustaining a lower-body injury on Feb. 14.
The two injuries could not have come at a worse time as the Panthers try to scratch and claw their way into a playoff spot.
“It was extremely tough to watch,” Bennett said when asked about being sidelined.
“I want to help the team win and you can’t when you’re sitting in the press box, so it can be frustrating but you just have to be patient. It wasn’t ideal timing but I feel good now.”
When they returned to the lineup on Saturday, Barkov and Bennett led the charge in a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bennett started things off with a goal and Barkov finished the job with two assists.
“They are two big, fast men and in this sport, that center ice drives your team because they basically play as defensemen in their own end and they drive the offense and the faceoffs,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal about missing those guys because it wasn’t going to get them back in the lineup and we still had to figure out how to win games.
“But there wouldn’t be a team in the league that could take their top two centermen out of the lineup and be confident that they were winning every night.”
The gravity they both carry when they drive the net was certainly felt on Saturday night.
The two create space for their linemates and they used that space to their advantage as they picked apart the Penguins.
“You take a look at [Carter] Verhaeghe’s goal, Bennett drives the hole and moves the defenseman over two feet,” Maurice said. “That’s what Carter was waiting for.”
Add in Anthony Duclair, who played in his fourth game since returning from an offseason Achilles injury, and the Panthers essentially played their first game at full strength all season.
Albeit without Givani Smith and Patric Hornqvist, but it was close enough.
“It was awesome,” Bennett said. “You can feel the energy in the room. Everyone was excited and it’s great having a full lineup. We have a lot of confidence right now and we are ready to do whatever it takes to make that push.”
Florida floored it on the gas pedal immediately to start the game and did not relent with wave after wave coming from all four lines.
“You can run your bench differently, so we had our minutes down from what they used to see,” Maurice said.
“Verhaeghe, Duclair and even [Matthew] Tkachuk only had 17 minutes tonight so we can play harder, we can play faster because we had four lines that can play.”
An astounding 13-3 lead in shots on goal and a 9-1 lead in scoring chances in the first period.
It did not immediately result in goals but they were able to eventually break down the Pittsburgh defense.
Bennett slipped a Verhaeghe rebound past Casey DeSmith with 21.8 seconds to go in the first to put the Panthers up early.
“It was a really defensive game,” Bennett said.
“I think both teams played really defensively to start the game and we never cheated to try and get chances. We just let the game come to us and that’s how we got to play.”
They did not break that character when they started the second period.
Barkov got into the fun 4:11 into the second period by slipping a feed over to Aaron Ekblad for a one-timer on the power play to extend Florida’s lead to 2-0.
Kris Letang got one back with a 5-on-3 power play but that seemed to be one of the only blips in an otherwise perfect 60-minute effort from the Panthers.
Sergei Bobrovsky made sure of it with a highlight-reel blocker save on Sidney Crosby to keep the Panthers ahead seconds before Eetu Luostarinen extended that lead on the other end of the ice with 10 seconds to go in the second period.
Verhaeghe padded the lead to 4-1 with a laser of a wrist shot from above the slot near the midway point of the third period that essentially made the Penguins unravel with frustration.
Jason Zucker ran Bobrovsky not even a minute later and started a line brawl that even an otherwise even-keeled Bobrovsky got himself involved in.
“I thought he threw the elbow on purpose and I didn’t like that. I thought it was a dirty play and I tried to get up and protect myself,” Bobrovsky said.
“I feel fine. At the very last second, I saw him in my peripheral vision where he kind of got his elbow up so I was able to shell myself up and protect myself.”
Bobrovsky was able to pick up the pieces and stop the remaining nine shots of the game to seal off a 32-save win.
“It was a full 60-minute effort and I don’t think we had any bad moments,” Barkov said. “Whenever they had a chance to score, Bob was there for us the whole game.”
The Panthers are going to have to string together more games like this over the last 18 games of the season if they want to make the playoffs.
With the win, Florida now trails Pittsburgh by three points for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
And with two more games played.
Realistically, they will have to win 13 or 14 of their remaining games for a legitimate chance to make the postseason.
But they feel like they are up for it after playing with as close to a full-strength lineup as they have all season.
“We are confident,” Barkov said. “We just need to get ready for each game like it’s the biggest game of our careers and that’s what we have been doing lately. This one was a good example of that.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- This season (Vegas leads 1-0): Golden Knights 4, Panthers 2 (Jan. 12)
- Last season: Split 1-1
- All-time regular season series: Vegas leads 6-2-1
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Chicago. 7 p.m.