SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kris Versteeg
and Dmitry Kulikov
stayed on the ice after the morning skate Thursday and they'll once again be out of the lineup when the Florida Panthers
face Boston Thursday night.
But their long-awaited return appears imminent. In fact, it very well might come as early as Saturday when the Panthers wrap up a four-game homestand against the Buffalo Sabres
"Getting closer, that's the good part," said Kulikov, who will miss his 23rd game since undergoing knee surgery. "I'm practicing with the team. So excited to be out there with the guys. Just waiting for my comeback."
Versteeg, for his part, will miss his ninth consecutive game with a lower-body injury.
Despite not having played since Feb. 26, Versteeg is tied with Tomas Fleischmann
for the team lead in goals (22) and points (49).
Kulikov, meanwhile, appeared on his way to a breakout season in his third year in the NHL. Despite having played only 42 games, the 2009 first-round pick is only two points shy of his career high of 26.
"Kuli was so impressive at the beginning of the year," coach Kevin Dineen
said. "For a young player, he shows a great deal of maturity and stability. He's been sorely missed. We're excited about his imminent return."
The return of Versteeg and Kulikov no doubt will provide a major boost for a Florida team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Even with those two, the Panthers won't be completely healthy, as forwards Matt Bradley
and Jack Skille
are both likely out for the season with upper-body injuries.
But Versteeeg and Kulikov are two important pieces for the Panthers, and Dineen will find himself with some tough lineup decisions going forward.
"It's hard decisions," Dineen said, "and that's a good reflection on what Dale Tallon
has done here to give us the depth to be healthy and to have options in the playoff run. And that's what we’re looking for."