The Florida Panthers face one of their biggest tests of the season against a fellow Eastern Conference competitor in the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Florida is finishing off a grueling stretch of nine of 11 road games and it does not get much easier after a huge bite from the injury bug.
Sam Bennett left Monday’s game in New York with a lower-body injury after his skate got tangled up with Rangers forward Filip Chytil and his leg was subsequently driven into the boards afterward.
He returned to play a few shifts in the second period but did not return for the third period and is out for Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh.
Bennett’s scoring numbers have been down this year, but he has been a major driver of one of Florida’s most successful lines as of late.
“We don’t talk nearly enough about him,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
”He is back checking for [Carter Verhaeghe and Matthew Tkachuk] a lot, he is grinding down low and he is also getting up the ice. The key piece to those two may actually be the guy in the middle.”
The Panthers are already missing Eric Staal up the middle with a concussion he sustained last Tuesday and will use Colin White — a natural winger — as the fourth-line center in the meantime.
It is something they have tried beforehand but White has not been able to find success there or even in his natural position as of late.
White returns from being a healthy scratch for the last five games on a 22-game goal drought and a 12-game point drought.
The 25-year-old has just one assist in his last 22 games.
Florida has tried him on the fourth line next to Ryan Lomberg and Givani Smith in the past, but the line has tended to lack its usual intensity with him down the middle and he was garnering under 10 minutes of ice time per game in that role.
Maurice will have options to work with — as Nick Cousins has played the center position before as well — but all decisions are up in the air until game time with the team not holding a morning skate on Tuesday.
Maurice did not completely rule Bennett out, stating that he is a game-time decision, but he also said that a return to the lineup on Tuesday would be unlikely and a weekend return from his lower-body injury is not out of the question.
UPDATE: Florida will NOT get goalie Spencer Knight back from an undisclosed injury that kept him out of the lineup for two weeks.
He stopped 45 of 49 shots in an AHL conditioning stint over the weekend before being returned to the big squad on Monday to back up Alex Lyon.
Lyon led the Panthers onto the ice Tuesday night so he gets the start.
The Penguins are also likely recipients of good injury news with star defenseman Kris Letang nearing a return.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan labeled the 35-year-old as a game-time decision after he took line rushes on the top pairing and the top power play unit on Tuesday morning.
Letang would provide a huge boost to a Penguins power play that has slipped to a 16.3 percent efficiency that is tied for the eighth-worst total in the NHL since his departure from the lineup on Dec. 28.
This is an important game for both teams as they sit within three points of each other in the Eastern Conference wildcard race.
Pittsburgh is currently three points up on Florida and holds the final wildcard spot in the East with three games in hand.
A win for the Panthers is important as a loss would pin them five points back with the All-Star break quickly looming.
Backup Casey DeSmith starts for the Pens.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: PPG Arena, Pittsburgh
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- DraftKings Odds — Penguins favored: MoneyLine (-155); Puck line (-1.5, +165); Over/Under 6.5 (-120/+100)
- Season Series (Penguins lead 1-0): Pittsburgh 4, Panthers 2 (Dec. 15)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Penguins lead 55-35-7, 4 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Los Angeles Kings, 7 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
15 Anton Lundell // 16 Sasha Barkov // 13 Sam Reinhart
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 27 Eetu Luostarinen // 19 Matthew Tkachuk
14 Grigori Denisenko // 71 Chris Tierney // 21 Nick Cousins
94 Ryan Lomberg // 6 Colin White // 54 Givani Smith
42 Gus Forsling // 5 Aaron Ekblad
18 Marc Staal // 62 Brandon Montour
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
34 Alex Lyon
30 Spencer Knight
Injured: Anthony Duclair (LTIR-Achilles), Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion), Eric Staal (IR-concussion), Sergei Bobrovsky (LBI), Sam Bennett (LBI)
Scratched: Casey Fitzgerald
PROJECTED PITTSBURGH PENGUINS LINEUP
59 Jake Guentzel // 87 Sidney Crosby // 17 Bryan Rust
16 Jason Zucker // 71 Evgeni Malkin // 67 Rickard Rakell
23 Brock McGinn // 53 Teddy Blueger // 77 Jeff Carter
10 Drew O’Connor // 25 Ryan Poehling // 43 Danton Heinen
8 Brian Dumoulin // 58 Kris Letang
28 Marcus Pettersson // 26 Jeff Petry
73 Pierre-Olivier Joseph // 2 Chad Ruhwedel
1 Casey DeSmith
35 Tristan Jarry