“I like the way we’re playing,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “I think that all four lines are contributing. I think guys are slotted into the right spots; we’re getting better matchups. I think we’re a deeper team. We’ve got a balanced approach up there on the forward lines now.”
The main reason behind Florida’s new-look balanced attack has been the return of second-line center Vincent Trocheck. In the two games since the former all-star’s return, the Panthers have outscored opponents 7-3, with Trocheck chipping in a goal and two assists in those contests.
With Trocheck, who missed 27 games with a broken ankle suffered on Nov. 19, the Panthers are not only getting better matchups, but also lifting the big-minutes burden off other forwards.
“It’s changed the atmosphere,” said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who leads the team with 48 points this season. “Obviously when a guy comes back like that, a top player on the ice, the atmosphere changed a lot. It’s helped us, obviously. We’ve won two big games against two great teams. It just shows that we have the team to beat any team.”
During Saturday’s 4-2 win in Nashville, Trocheck scored the game-winning goal on a second-period breakaway and finished with 22:03 of ice time – a team-high among forwards. Of those minutes, 3:51 came on the penalty kill, where Florida stifled all four Predators power plays.
Overall, the Panthers have gone 24-for-26 on the penalty kill over their last 11 games.
“He’s been amazing, obviously,” Boughner said of Trocheck’s contributions. “He’s been our emotional leader. He’s getting it done offensively, in the faceoffs and on the penalty kill.”
In addition to Trocheck’s return, Florida has also benefited from the consistent play of Frank Vatrano. Promoted to the top line last week, the 24-year-old winger has scored in four of his last six games, pushing his already career-high goal total to 15, which ranks fourth on the team.
“He’s been great. We’ve talked about him being that need for depth scoring, and I think he’s supplied that. Now he’s played so well that he’s got promoted up to that line. What I love about not just the way he’s scoring is what he’s doing away from the puck, how hard he’s working on the forecheck. He’s blocking shots. He’s doing a little bit of everything.”
With 46 points through 47 games, the Panthers (19-20-8) find themselves two points ahead of where they were in the standings at this point last season heading into the league’s unofficial mid-way point. After the break, they went on a league-best 25-8-2 run to finish with 96 points.
Hoping for a similar second-half surge this season, Huberdeau said tonight’s game will be key.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “We’re going to have a long break, so nothing to save it for. Tonight, three periods, we’ve got to play hard. If we play a full 60 minutes, we can get the win.”
San Jose (28-15-7) enters tonight’s matchup with losses in each of its last two games – a streak that was preceded by seven straight wins. In those two losses, the Sharks have surrendered 12 combined goals, including consecutive 6-3 defeats in Arizona and Tampa, respectively.
That being said, the Panthers know San Jose can fill up the scoresheet on any given night, as the Sharks rank third in the league in offense (3.56 goals per game) and 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 minutes (64.82), while also firing the second-most shots on goal per game (34.4).
Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks in goals (26), while defenseman Brent Burns paces the team in points (52).
“We’ve got to play well defensively, and the offense will come after that” Huberdeau said. “We know we’ve got to focus defensively, not allow a lot of goals, and it should work out. We know they have a good offense on the other side, so we’ve just got to work in their zone as much as possible.”
— Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in points (44), including two goals and three assists over his last nine games. The 23-year-old captain ranks third in the NHL in takeaways (65) and drawn penalties (tied-27), while his 23:06 of ice time per game paces all forwards.
— Mike Hoffman leads the Panthers in goals (23), power-play goals leader (10) and shots on goal (150). The 29-year-old winger is one of just eight players in the NHL this season to score at least 10 power-play goals, and is three away from matching the career-high 13 he had 2016-17.
— With his team-leading ninth goal of the season and 62nd career NHL goal on Saturday in Nashville, Aaron Ekblad surpassed Robert Svehla (61) for first in franchise history in goals scored by a defenseman. With one more goal, the 22-year-old former Calder Trophy winner will achieve his fifth consecutive 10-goal campaign.
— Keith Yandle currently leads all Panthers defensemen in points (37) and assists (31), while his 23 power-play points ranks tied for fifth in the NHL and first among all defensemen.
GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME
Roberto Luongo (9-11-1, 3.23 GAA, .894 SV%) vs. Martin Jones (22-9-4, 2.82 GAA, .899 SV%) Luongo will get the nod for the Panthers, looking to build off one of his best starts of the season. In his last outing, the 39-year-old stopped 20 of 21 shots in a 3-1 win over Toronto on Jan. 18 to snap out of a personal four-game losing streak. In his career against the Sharks, he owns a 14-3-5 record with a 2.57 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and one shutout.
Jones is expected to make his second straight start for the Sharks. The 29-year-old is coming off one of his worst starts of the season, allowing a season-high six goals during a 6-3 loss in Tampa on Saturday. Prior to that game, he had picked up the win in eight straight starts and 12 of 14 overall. In his career against Florida, he’s gone 2-1-1 with a .883 save percentage.
Frank Vatrano – Aleksander Barkov – Evgenii Dadonov
Jonathan Huberdeau – Vincent Trocheck – Nick Bjugstad
Mike Hoffman – Henrik Borgstrom – Denis Malgin
Jayce Hawryluk – Jared McCann – Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle – Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson – Mark Pysyk
Ian McCoshen – Josh Brown
Scratches: Micheal Haley, Troy Brouwer, Bogdan Kiselevich
Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder), Jamie McGinn (back), MacKenzie Weegar (upper-body)
– Jan. 18: F Juho Lammikko was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
– Jan. 18: D Josh Brown was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
– 50/50 Raffle (buy digital tickets here)
– All-Star Send Off (Keith Yandle All-Star Poster Giveaway)
BITE OF BB&T CENTER
– Blackened Mahi Tacos outside section 129 for $9
HOW TO WATCH
When: Monday, Jan. 21, 7:00 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center – Sunrise, FL
TV: Fox Sports Florida
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)