SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers will be as close to full-strength as they have all season when they return from the NHL’s holiday break to play the Montreal Canadiens.
Sasha Barkov (knee), Aaron Ekblad (shoulder) and Radko Gudas (concussion) were all cleared to return to the lineup on Thursday night, ending a month-long stretch where the Panthers missed 10 players due to injury and illness.
Anton Levtchi will also make his NHL debut tonight after winning the scoring title in Finland’s Liiga last season.
“I would look at it as a place to heal,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said of the holiday break.
”We missed those guys, but even more importantly, we had a run of illness where we’d have a guy miss a game and come back over those two or three weeks so we were really struggling.
”My trainer came in and said ‘nothing to report’ and I haven’t heard that in a while so we’re pretty excited here.”
That stretch of injury and illness — starting on Nov. 15 with Barkov — sent the Panthers into a tailspin, seeing them go 6-10-3 overall and 2-6-2 without their captain in the lineup.
Florida will play its first game with all three of its top centers in the lineup since Nov. 23 after Anton Lundell dealt with a spell of injury and illness of his own over the last month before returning just before the break.
”[Their returns] help on all single parts because the other piece of that was Lundell,” Maurice said.
”You can lose a centerman, but when you lose two of your top three for a block of eight games and you get out on the road, it puts an awful lot of pressure on some of the players.”
In particular, it has pinned the responsibility of playing heavy minutes against the other team’s best on Sam Bennett.
Since Lundell’s departure from the lineup in Seattle, Bennett has just two assists in his last 10 games and is currently on an 11-game goal drought.
Bennett, who had been playing first line minutes next to Matthew Tkachuk and Eetu Luostarinen prior to the break, sticks with the same linemates while playing against the other team’s No. 2s.
”I don’t think it’s necessarily about easing the pressure off. It’s about having more centers back in the lineup and having our normal lineup back,” Tkachuk said.
”I think that he’s done a great job this year but obviously when guys are out of the lineup, it’s just more of everything. I don’t think there is any pressure with him, and if there is, it doesn’t bother him.”
Colin White, who is on a 13-game goal drought of his own, will get a chance to play with Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe on the top line while looking to break it.
White has one assist in his last 13 games since starting the year with five goals and 12 points in 18 games.
”I’m expecting the game that he played earlier in the year and a renewed sense of ‘I’m playing with Barkov and Verhaeghe’ and bringing that jump,” Maurice said.
”There’s a chance that you and I could score or do something on that line, so you want to be a productive part of it. You want to put pucks in places those guys understand, you don’t want to slow the group down and he’s got real good speed. He is a smart player, he can play off those guys, but he just has to allow Verhaeghe and Barkov to play at the speed they are capable of.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
MONTREAL CANADIENS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Draft Kings odds — Panthers favored: Moneyline (-350); Puck line (-1.5, -135); Over/Under 6.5 (-110/-110)
- Last season: Florida won 3-1
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 51-38-11, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Dec. 30 at Carolina Hurricanes, 7:30 p.m.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 16 Sasha Barkov // 6 Colin White
27 Eetu Luostarinen // 9 Sam Bennett // 19 Matthew Tkachuk
76 Anton Levtchi // 15 Anton Lundell // 13 Sam Reinhart
94 Ryan Lomberg // 12 Eric Staal // 21 Nick Cousins
42 Gus Forsling // 5 Aaron Ekblad
18 Marc Staal // 62 Brandon Montour
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
30 Spencer Knight
Injured: Anthony Duclair (LTIR-Achilles), Patric Hornqvist (LTIR-concussion), Chris Tierney (UBI)
Scratched: Zac Dalpe, Matt Kiersted
PROJECTED MONTREAL CANADIENS LINEUP
22 Cole Caufield // 14 Nick Suzuki // 40 Joel Armia
68 Mike Hoffman // 77 Kirby Dach // 27 Jonathan Drouin
20 Juraj Slafkovsky // 28 Christian Dvorak // 17 Josh Anderson
55 Michael Pezzetta // 71 Jake Evans // Anthony Richard
44 Joel Edmunson // 21 Kaiden Guhle
72 Arber Xhekaj // 26 Jonathan Kovacevic
54 Jordan Harris // 52 Justin Barron
35 Samuel Montembeault
34 Jake Allen