SUNRISE, Fla. — After coach Kevin Dineen said all week that Kris Versteeg and Dmitry Kulikov were close to returning to action, the next step finally has come and both players will be in the lineup when the Florida Panthers face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
Versteeg missed the last nine games because of a lower-body injury. He was the team’s leading scorer with 49 points when he went out, but has since dropped to third behind Tomas Fleischmann (51) and Stephen Weiss (50).
The three have played on the same line for most of the season, but Versteeg is expected to skate Saturday night alongside Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias.
“I want to be a help to the team in any way I can,” said Versteeg, who last played during the Panthers’ 4-2 victory over Montreal on Feb. 26. “I guess a couple of weeks ago we had a little bit of a rough run, but the last three games the guys have been clicking. You don’t want to come in and do too much to the chemistry, but you do want to come in and help.”
As for Kulikov, he’ll return after missing 23 games after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 24.
Kulikov figures to be paired again with veteran Mike Weaver.
“It’s been a long time,” Kulikov said. “I’ve been looking forward to this night. I’ve been looking forward to coming back and helping out the team. Obviously, guys are doing good right now. I just want to get into the rhythm and don’t mess up the thing.”
After undergoing surgery, Kulikov said the knee had been bothering to some degree for about five years. But he says he’s 100 percent now.
“When you’re injured, you’re working even harder than the guys that are playing,” Kulikov said. “That’s what they prepare you for. It’s hard, but that needs to be done, those workouts and preparation for the games. I feel fresh right now. I feel like I have lots of energy.
“You don’t go into the game and get used to the game. You don’t have time for that. You just have to go out there and pick up where you left off or even better. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll see how it
The return of Versteeg and Kulikov made for some tough lineup decisions for Dineen, whose team is riding a three-game winning streak.
“A guy like Marco Sturm that I felt played the best game I’ve seen him play in a Panthers uniform (Thursday against Boston) is making those decisions extremely tough,” Dineen said. “When you get a coveted spot in this lineup, your job is to make sure that the coaches have a tough decision every day in how they’re putting their lineup together every day.
“That’s exactly what you want. You want enthusiasm and some kind of production ... it may not be on the score sheet, but there has to be a positive effect for every player in the lineup for us to be successful. That’s how our sales job right now.”
It is Sturm’s spot on the Matthias line that Versteeg will take against Buffalo, but Sturm is expected to be in the lineup anyway skating with John Madden and Jerred Smithson.
Here is the Panthers’ projected lineup for Saturday night against Buffalo.
Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Wojtek Wolski
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Kris Versteeg
Marco Sturm - John Madden - Jerred Smithson
Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson