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Defensive Depth of Florida Panthers Comes Through Again



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Toby Bjornfot, Josh Mahura and Uvis Balinskis were instrumental in showing how deep the Florida Panthers defensive corps are. // Photos courtesy @FlaPanthers, Associated Press

On several occasions, Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice characterized his team’s current stretch of ten games in 17 days as “brutal.”

Six of those 10 games are away from home — and, starting with Nashville last Thursday — the Panthers played at least seven of those games against teams holding a playoff position.

The Nashville game turned out to be the third of three straight lackluster losses.

To make matters worse, Florida played some of those games without its top defensive pairing.

Aaron Ekblad has missed the past seven games with a lower-body injury. His partner, Gus Forsling missed the last two with illness, and Dmitry Kulikov missed two while under suspension.

Compound this with the loss of Sasha Barkov for the past three games, and you have a major dilemma.

Enter Florida’s depth.

Before the season even began, general manager Bill Zito loaded up on d-men knowing Ekblad and Brandon Montour would not be available early in the season.

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Four of the six opening-night defenders were new to the team in Kulikov, Oliver Ekman-LarssonUvis Balinskis, and Niko Mikkola.

The team did so well during Montour and Ekblad’s absence (10-5-1) that Maurice and Zito had to make difficult decisions.

Balinskis, who was not subject to waivers, went to Charlotte and Mike Reilly was lost on waivers.

Ekman-Larssen, Kulikov, and Mikkola played so well that Josh Mahura, who played all 82 games last season and was a warrior in the playoffs, could not draw back into the lineup after an injury.

Fast forward to the trade deadline. 

Zito added more depth by claiming Toby Bjornfot off waivers from Vegas. 

Bjornfot had not played much this year due to injuries, but the Florida scouting staff thought highly of him.

Bjornfot saw action against the Rangers when the team missed half of its regular defensemen (Ekblad, Forsling, and Kulikov) and played well.

Post-game, Maurice quipped: “Got to see Tobias for the first time. He hasn’t played hockey in a long time. Second shift he’s down past the goal line on the other end. I thought, ‘Good for you, young man. Go show us what you can do and play the game to win’.”

Balinskis, who played very well when he was here early, made a seamless return to the lineup. Mahura was strong in the shootout loss to the Rangers and in the win in Philly, playing alongside Mikkola.

Defensive depth was critical in earning a point against the Rangers and breaking the losing streak against a much-improved Philadelphia team that had already defeated the Panthers twice this season.

Barkov and Forsling look like game-time decisions against Boston. Ekblad could be a week or more away. 

Maurice has always said he will not rush anyone back into the lineup.

Tuesday’s match against Boston will be a battle for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins and Panthers are tied at 97 points, with the Panthers having played one fewer game.

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  • When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932; NHL App
  • Last Season — Regular Season: Tied 2-2; Playoffs: Florida won 4-3 (first-round)
  • This season (Bruins Lead 2-0) — At Boston: Bruins 3, Panthers 2 OT (Oct.30); April 6. At Florida: Bruins 3, Panthers 1 (Nov. 22); Tuesday.
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Boston leads 62-37-7, 6 ties
  • All-time Postseason Series: Florida leads 2-0 (1996, 2023)
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday vs. NY Islanders, 7 p.m.

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