SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers will be as complete a team as they have been all season long on Saturday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins come to town.
Sasha Barkov and Sam Bennett are back in the lineup after missing the past few games as both will be on the ice with Anthony Duclair for the first time.
Barkov has missed the past three games with a hand injury; Bennett has been out for six with a lower body concern.
“We traded for Barkov and Bennett last night and they are in tonight,” coach Paul Maurice said following a brisk morning skate at the arena.
“Two big men in the middle of the ice makes a difference to your d-zone coverage, how much you can hold onto the puck in the offensive zone and when you can get it to the net. When you have the skill those two guys have — and you’re going up against one of the deepest center-ice teams in the league — so we need those two guys back.”
With their top two centers back, the Panthers are mixing things up.
Matthew Tkachuk had moved over to the left side but returns to the right side of a second line with Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe.
Duclair will play with Barkov and Eetu Luostarinen on the top line. After a stint centering the top line in place of Barkov after being moved to the wing, Anton Lundell will center a third line with Sam Reinhart and Ryan Lomberg.
It is a promotion for Luostarinen who has scored a career-high 14 goals with 33 points.
Lundell goes back to his natural position after Florida’s top line production had dried up prior to Barkov leaving the lineup again — which could be attributed to him playing through his hand injury.
”We liked him on the wing with Barkov but that line sort of tailed off in terms of production and that kind of had to do with Barkov’s original injury,” Maurice said. “When we got beat up there and Lundell went back into the middle, we really liked it. I think he has grown since playing on the wing. He is driving harder down the middle.”
As for the health of Barkov and Bennett?
”There is no minute restriction on these guys,” Maurice said. “They going back in at 100 percent.”
BAND STAYS TOGETHER
Florida GM Bill Zito may not have been a welcomed sight inside the Florida locker room in the hours leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, but everyone was happy to see him Saturday after he did not make any deals and kept the team together.
The Panthers have 19 games left and are four points out of the playoffs.
They need to start putting some wins together — and start that run tonight.
“We all believe in each other, we’re a tight group and are all about the same age range and on the same career path,” Verhaeghe said. “We kind of have built together so it is nice to hear. It’s awesome.”
Added Maurice: “It is a (relief) for all 32 teams when it’s over, even for guys with no-trade contracts because they have friends on their team and relationships in the room. Then there is the speculation to how your team is going to look, the names that are out there. It’s over and there is a relief there.”
FORSLING PLAYS NO. 300
After years of going back-and-forth from the AHL Rockford Icehogs to the Chicago Blackhawks, it did not appear defenseman Gus Forsling would ever hit substantial milestones in the NHL.
But he has been a regular since being picked up by the Panthers off waivers (from Carolina) in 2021 and will play in his 300th NHL game tonight.
“It is exciting and you don’t think about playing 300 NHL games when you get started so it is kind of amazing,” said Forsling, who will play in his 178th game with Florida since joining them three seasons ago.
“It is has been a long journey, I have played a lot of different scenarios and positions. It has been a lot of fun.”
HERE COME THE PENGUINS
The Pittsburgh Penguins looked beat a few weeks ago but have now won four consecutive games and hold a five-point lead on Florida in the playoff chase.
The Pens also have two games in hand on the Panthers.
Pittsburgh is expected to have Nick Bonino back in the lineup after reacquiring him on Friday in another deadline deal by GM Ron Hextall.
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
- When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- 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 — Panthers favored: Money Line (-125); Puck line (-1.5, +185); Over/Under 6.5 (-135/+115)
- Season Series (Penguins lead 2-0): Pittsburgh 4, Panthers 2 (Dec. 15); Penguins 7, Panthers 6 OT (Jan. 24)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Penguins lead 56-35-7, 4 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 7 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
27 Eetu Luostarinen // 16 Sasha Barkov // 10 Anthony Duclair
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 9 Sam Reinhart // 19 Matthew Tkachuk
94 Ryan Lomberg // 15 Anton Lundell // 13 Sam Reinhart
21 Nick Cousins // 12 Eric Staal // 6 Colin White
42 Gus Forsling // 5 Aaron Ekblad
18 Marc Staal // 62 Brandon Montour
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
34 Alex Lyon
Scratched: Casey Fitzgerald
Returned to Charlotte: Zac Dalpe, Grigori Denisenko
Injured: Givani Smith (LTIR-face), Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion)
PROJECTED PITTSBURGH PENGUINS LINEUP
59 Jake Guetnzel // 87 Sidney Crosby // 67 Rickard Rakell
16 Jason Zucker // 71 Evgeni Malkin // 17 Bryan Rust
43 Danton Heinen // 77 Jeff Carter // 64 Mikael Granlund
10 Drew O’Connor // 13 Nick Bonino // 15 Josh Archibald
8 Brian Dumoulin // 58 Kris Letang
28 Marcus Pettersson // 26 Jeff Petry
73 Pierre-Olivier Joseph // 2 Chad Ruhwedel
35 Tristan Jarry
1 Casey DeSmith