It has been almost a month now since Sam Bennett last suited up for the Florida Panthers and the team has probably missed their second-line center more than they could have imagined.
While Anton Lundell has filled in admirably, that certain something Bennett brings to the table — toughness, playmaking ability, skill around the net and on the perimeter — has been lacking since he left a game in Detroit on March 20.
Bennett has been dealing with what is believed to be a groin injury for much of the second half of this season.
He was originally injured Feb. 14 in St. Louis and missed the next six games.
Bennett returned to the lineup on March 4 and played seven more games before getting hurt again in Detroit.
His return to the Panthers is unknown although he has been skating every day with coach Paul Maurice saying Tuesday that he is now in the “optimistic” phase of Bennett’s recovery.
Of course, Bennett wants desperately to come back to the Panthers.
They would love to have him back in their lineup.
Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.
They certainly could use him against the Bruins in this first-round playoff series.
UPDATE: Bennett was back with the Panthers at morning skate on Wednesday and Maurice said he would play in Game 3.
“Some people think he is our MVP. Not having him in our lineup is a huge loss,’’ said GM Bill Zito, whose team had won just three of nine without Bennett in the lineup before they ended the regular season 6-1-1.
“He is an enigma: Some nights, you think of him as that tough, hard, grinding player and then on other nights, you think of him as skill and speed. Then there is the night where you think of him as a cerebral player who feathers one in or finds a seam. You can’t figure him out. You embrace all of those things that he does well and you celebrate them. Him not being here has been huge.’’
On Saturday, Bennett skated alone with skills coach Maxim Ivanov dressed only in a Panthers track suit. He was slow moving around the ice as he gingerly worked around pylons lined up down the ice.
He was in full gear Sunday, going a little faster through the obstacles with Maurice saying if he felt up to it, he would skate the following day.
So far, so good. As for a timetable, however, the Panthers could not place one on Bennett’s potential return even if they wanted to.
“He is improving,” Maurice said on Tuesday. “We have had some setbacks in the past, he has improved then had a setback. Right now I am optimistic we will get him back soon. We will get him off the ice, see how he feels and start making decisions (Wednesday).”
Bennett ended this season with 16 goals and 40 points in 63 games but his importance to the Panthers is more than just what he produces offensively.
He and Matthew Tkachuk obviously have a special relationship and have a great rapport on and off the ice dating back to their days with the Calgary Flames.
Bennett’s resurgence with the Panthers after being traded here in 2021 and his willingness to sign on for four more years certainly played a part in Tkachuk including the Panthers in his list of three teams he would sign a long-term deal with last summer.
“He is such a big loss and it is kind of like when we did not have Barky out there,” Tkachuk said. “He is a huge part of this team. It is tough to lose your top center on a team because that leaves a hole but guys have been able to step up and help fill it, get us into the dance.’’
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 2 (Bruins lead Best-of-7 Series 1-0)
- When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: T.D. Garden
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN/ESPN+
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM/WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Regular Season Series (Tied 2-2): @Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17); @Florida 5, Boston 2 (Nov. 23); @Boston 7, Florida 3 (Dec. 19); @Florida 4, Boston 3 OT (Jan. 28)
- Last Season: Boston won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Boston leads 60-38-6, 6 ties
- Playoff History (Florida leads 1-0): Panthers 4-1, 1996 (first round)
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Boston 3, Florida 1; Game 2: at Boston, Wednesday, ame 3: at Florida, Friday, 7:30 (TNT); Game 4: at Florida, Sunday, April 23, 3:30 (TNT); Game 5*: at Boston, Wednesday, April 26; Game 6*: at Florida, Friday, April 28; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30.