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Panthers battling through injuries to key forwards

Confident despite losing Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad to start season

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers returned to practice Monday to prepare for their season opener against the New Jersey Devils after dealing with the disappointment of losing a second key player to injury.

The Panthers will open the season Thursday at BB&T Center (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, MSG+) without forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who is expected to miss 3-4 months because of an ankle injury sustained in a 4-2 victory against the Devils in a preseason game at West Point, New York, on Saturday. The injury came four days after center Nick Bjugstad broke his hand, which is likely to sideline him for the first month of the regular season.

"We're not going to sugarcoat it, we're losing two great hockey players," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "That's tough on your team, but it gives the other guys the opportunity and hopefully they take advantage of it and hopefully we win a lot of hockey games.

"It's unfortunate for us to lose two players like we've lost, but it's part of our game and we've got to move on. Somebody else gets an opportunity and they're good players and they're good people, but they're not going to be here for the first little while."

Huberdeau and Bjugstad both sustained fluky injuries; Huberdeau's leg was cut by the blade of Devils center Sergey Kalinin's skate after the two became tangled behind the New Jersey goal, and Bjugstad broke his hand when it got caught in the net during a preseason game against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 2.

Huberdeau was tied for third on the Panthers with 59 points last season playing on the top line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.

"It's a big loss for the team," Jagr said. "It's a big loss for our line. Especially on this team. Since I (got) here, most of the nights we played together, so the chemistry was there. And he looked so good this training camp. It's just sad. But we have to somehow battle through it.

"Probably if you have a choice to have injuries early in the season or the playoffs, this is probably a better time right now. But, of course, you don't want any for us. On the other side, there's a lot of guys getting opportunities to play."

Jonathan Marchessault, who signed a two-year contract with the Panthers on July 1, will replace Huberdeau on the first line. Swiss rookie Denis Malgin, 19, will replace Bjugstad as the third-line center and likely play between Jared McCann and Colton Sceviour.

Bjugstad led the Panthers with 24 goals in 2014-15.

"We've lost two huge pieces of the puzzle right now," said center Derek MacKenzie, who was named Panthers captain Sunday. "When you look at getting through training camp, I don't want to say worst-case scenario but … [Huberdeau] has quietly become one of our best players. He's been a guy who's been here since the start. He's doing all the right things. And then you have [Bjugstad], he's a horse for this team. He's really matured here in the last year and a half. He'll continue to do that. But we've got our work cut out here for Game 1. I mean, those are two huge pieces of the puzzle."

Despite the loss of Bjugstad and Huberdeau, the Panthers still have high expectations coming off the most successful regular season in Florida history, which ended with 103 points and an Atlantic Division title.

"My message right now is just going to be keep going about our business, prepare ourselves for Game 1," MacKenzie said. "On the flip side, management has done a great job of adding depth and young talent to this team. Being positive, we've got guys that can step in for the meantime and we have a pretty good schedule. We should be fine.

"I don't think we had the best start last year. It was barely .500. If you don't mix in a 12-game winning streak, that puts us in jeopardy late in the season. What is our concern? We have to be better to start the season."

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