The Florida Panthers are pulling an unorthodox move out of their hat in a seemingly must-win game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Already down their top two centers, Panthers coach Paul Maurice made the move to scratch rookie forward Grigori Denisenko and dress defenseman Casey Fitzgerald for the first time since claiming him off waivers in January to roll out 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
“He’s improved since he’s been here,” Maurice said of Fitzgerald.
“He has worked really hard on his off-ice and each practice he seems to get better and stronger and that’s a challenge since he’s been out a long time. And when you feel like you’ve become a practice player, it gets hard to get fired up for the 45 minutes that we are on the ice, but he has done that and he is ready to go.”
The 26-year-old defenseman has not dressed in a game since Dec. 19 and has three assists with a plus/minus of minus-1 in 23 games this season.
He has a total of 59 NHL games under his belt with nine assists, no goals and a minus-20 rating overall in his career.
Denisenko comes out of the lineup after going without a point in his latest six-game stint in the NHL.
Every game to this point is “must-win” for Florida as they find themselves near the bottom of a heated Eastern Conference wildcard race.
They are three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference but have two more games played than them.
The Panthers have at least two more games played than the rest of the field, save for the New York Islanders, who occupy the top wild card spot with 69 points, and the Washington Capitals, who are tied with Florida at 64 points with one more game played.
It is going to be an uphill battle for a Panthers team that has lost four of its last seven games — especially without its top two centers for the second-straight game — but if they are going to make up ground, they are going to have to start tonight.
“You have to handle your day and only handle your day,” Maurice said.
“We dealt with what we needed to yesterday without a lot of foreshadowing into the game and then today is game day so we are fired up. If we win it, we got to leave if there, you are still in that exact same spot, and if you lose it, you gotta leave it there too.
“We are all going to suffer defeats but the team that gets off the mat better makes the playoffs.”
The Lightning is coming into this game angry off of a 7-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and will have Tanner Jeannot on hand to make his team debut after acquiring him via a trade with the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
“I think it is going to be a really physical game in part because they just traded for a really physical player and they will be amped up because of that.,” Maurice said of Jeannot, who has 14 points (5G, 9A) in 56 games this season.
“Our teams play against each other has been a lot of up and down the ice and there will be because of the skill level and the speed but I think this one is going to get to the walls pretty quick and pretty hard.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa
- 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 — Lightning favored: Money Line (-165); Puck line (-1.5, +145); Over/Under 7 (+125/-105)
- Season Series (Tampa Bay leads 2-1): Lightning 3, @Panthers 2 OT (Oct. 22); Lightning 4, Panthers 1 (Dec. 10); Florida 7, Lightning 1 (Feb. 6)
- Last season: Split four regular season games; Tampa won second-round playoff series 4-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 74-50-19, 10 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday vs. Nashville, 7 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
19 Matthew Tkachuk // 15 Anton Lundell // 13 Sam Reinhart
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 27 Eetu Luostarinen // 10 Anthony Duclair
94 Ryan Lomberg // 12 Eric Staal // 21 Nick Cousins
22 Zac Dalpe // 6 Colin White
42 Gus Forsling // 5 Aaron Ekblad
62 Brandon Montour // 18 Marc Staal
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
4 Casey Fitzgerald
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
34 Alex Lyon
Injured: Givani Smith (LTIR-face), Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion), Sam Bennett (lower body), Sasha Barkov (hand)
Scratched: Casey Fitzgerald
PROJECTED TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LINEUP
17 Alex Killorn // 21 Brayden Point // 86 Nikita Kucherov
38 Brandon Hagel // 71 Anthony Cirelli // 91 Steven Stamkos
84 Tanner Jeannot // 20 Nick Paul // 79 Ross Colton
14 Patrick Maroon // 41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare // 10 Corey Perry
77/ Victor Hedman // 24 Zach Bogosian
98 Mikhail Sergachev // 48 Nicklaus Perbix
28 Ian Cole // 81 Erik Cernak
88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
1 Brian Elliott