As the Ducks open their season-long 14-day, six-game road trip tonight in Florida, they'll likely face a Panthers squad with two marquee players returning to the lineup. Game-changers Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are expected to play and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Panthers, who enter tonight's game just four points out of both the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and third place in the Atlantic Division.
The 21-year-old Barkov has 27 points (9g/18a) in 36 games with the Panthers this season and led the team in scoring in November and December, but he missed the last 15 games due to injury. Tonight would mark the season debut for 23-year-old Huberdeau, who missed 51 games with an Achilles injury suffered during a preseason contest on October 8.
"I know that I've got to be careful," Huberdeau said in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. "The guys have been playing for like 50 games. They're in the season, they're into it, and I'm just starting, so I've just got to keep it simple playing with [Barkov] on the ice."
Though the Panthers remain in the bottom-third in terms of goal scoring, they managed to break out in a 6-5 victory over the Ottawa Senators at BB&T Center on Tuesday. The victory gave them three in a row on home ice and included former Ducks center Michael Sgarbossa recording his first career multi-point game (two assists). Sgarbossa was traded to Florida on November 16 in exchange for Logan Shaw - a trade that has worked out for both clubs.
"They had a barn-burner in their last game against Ottawa and scored a bunch of goals," said Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle. "It was a different type of hockey than most people were expecting from them. Coming out of the break, some games are high scoring."
The Ducks will lean on John Gibson while the Panthers are countering with new dad James Reimer. Gibson enters tonight's game ranked tied for seventh in the NHL in shutouts (3), and second among all netminders since Christmas in save percentage (.940) and goals-against average (1.73), and tied for third in wins (9) and tied for second in shutouts (2). Reimer and wife April welcomed daughter Nevaeh to the world on January 31. The 28-year-old goaltender is 4-2-1 over his last seven games with a 2.39 GAA and .929 SV% over that span.
While the Panthers are clawing their way into the postseason picture, the Ducks enter tonight's game three points out of first place in the Pacific Division (San Jose) and one point ahead of third-place Edmonton. "These are really important games," said Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm. "We need to get on the right side of the trip. Start off good and keep rolling from there."
Potential Line Combinations