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Barkov Expected Back as Panthers Go For Season Sweep of Penguins

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - The captain is coming back.

After missing the last three games while recovering from a lower-body injury, superstar center Aleksander Barkov is expected to be back in action for the Florida Panthers when they go for a rare sweep of their season series against the Pittsburgh Penguins at BB&T Center on Saturday.

"He did well today," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Barkov after Friday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "It looks like he feels good and looks good. He's going to play tomorrow."

One of the league's premier centermen, Barkov was knocked out of the lineup after absorbing a hit from Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber in a matchup at Montreal on Feb. 1. In 50 games this season, the 24-year-old ranks second in team-scoring with 54 points (16 goals, 38 assists).

With one more point, Barkov, who was originally selected by Florida with the second-overall pick in the 2013 draft, will become just the third player in franchise history to reach 400 career points.

"It's everything," Quenneville said when asked about the weight Barkov's return carries. "He's a key guy. He's our captain, our leader. He does everything for you. You can use him in all situations. We've missed him in the last three games or so. He can help us in every way."

Without their top-line pivot in Barkov, the Panthers have gone 1-1-1 over their last three games, including a 7-2 loss to Vegas on Thursday. In that tilt, Vincent Trocheck tied the game 2-2 with a beautiful wrap-around midway through the second period before the Golden Knights went on to score five straight goals to hand the Cats consecutive losses for the first time since Dec. 12-14.

At 29-18-6, the Panthers, who have won seven of their last 10 games, currently occupy fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Popping in and out of a playoff spot in recent weeks, they trail Toronto by one point for third, but also have a pair of key games in hand on the Maple Leafs.

Since Dec. 16, Florida has gone 6-0-1 in their next game following a loss.

"You don't want to get too high or too low," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said of the team's ability to bounce back this season. "I think, for us, it's just finding a way to be hungry tomorrow and not being satisfied with the effort we had last night [against the Golden Knights]."

Jonathan Huberdeau picked up two assists in the loss to Vegas for his team-leading 20th multi-point game of the season. A 2020 NHL All-Star, the 26-year-old winger ranks seventh in the league with 68 points (19 goals, 49 assists), including a whopping 26 on the man advantage.

After starting each of the last seven games, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to be back between the pipes for the Panthers tonight against Pittsburgh. The 31-year-old goaltender ranks tied for seventh in the league in wins (20), including owning a 9-5-1 mark over his last 15 appearances.

Sitting second in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins (33-15-5) have won eight of their last 11 games, but enter tonight's matchup on the heels of a 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Thursday.

"I think we battled hard and recovered from the first period where it kind of felt like they had us on our heels," Penguins goaltender Matt Murray told reporters after the loss to the Lightning. "But other than that, we battled hard and it's just unfortunate we came up short."

Evgeni Malkin leads the Penguins in scoring with 56 points (17 goals, 39 assists), while Bryan Rust paces the club in goals (22). Since returning from a long stint on the injured reserve list on Jan. 14, captain Sidney Crosby as produced 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in eight games.

In 42 career games against Florida, Crosby has registered 55 points (26 goals, 29 assists).

"We need everybody to play as well as we can tomorrow," Quenneville said. "That's a very dangerous team. Crosby didn't play last time, and he'll be going. Obviously you've got more concerns with him in the lineup. They've got a lot of skill. They work hard.

"They play the right way. That's why they are where they are in their conference and in our league. Across the board, no matter what line they're on, they always play with a purpose and come at you with speed and skill. They're really good in the puck areas."

While Pittsburgh has yet to announce a starting goaltender, Murray has gotten the nod in four of the last six games over rookie Tristan Jarry, including manning the crease in each of the last two. Over his last seven starts, Murray has posted a 6-1-0 record with a .919 save percentage.

Looking to sweep their season series with Pittsburgh for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign, the Panthers have won each of their first two matchups against the Penguins this season by a combined score of 8-3, including a 4-1 win in their last meeting back on Jan. 5.

"We know they've got high-end skill, guys that can change games," Yandle said. "I think, for us, it's just about doing a good job on their big guys, but they've also got scoring throughout their lineup. It's not going to be one or two guys to shut down, it's pretty much their whole team."

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Mark Pysyk has registered nine points (five goals, four assists) over his last 13 games. On Feb. 3, the 28-year-old defenseman-turned-forward recorded the first hat trick of his NHL career during a 5-3 win at Toronto, which also pushed his goal total on the year to a career-high seven.

-- Evgenii Dadonov leads Florida with 23 goals, including nine of his last 14 games. The 30-year-old winger also paces the team and is tied for sixth in the league with 10 power-play goals.

-- Keith Yandle ranks first among Florida's defensemen with 39 points (five goals, 34 assists). The 33-year-old is also tied for third among the league's blueliners in power-play points (20). He enters tonight's matchup needing just one more goal to reach 100 in his NHL career.

-- Mike Hoffman has tallied at least one point in 12 of his last 14 games, racking up seven goals and nine assists in that span. The 30-year-old winger ranks second on the Panthers in goals (20) and power-play goals (8), while also owning the third-most points (43).

-- Noel Acciari ranks fourth on the Panthers with a career-high 18 goals. In addition to his offensive numbers, he also ranks first among the league's forwards in blocked shots (82).

-- Aaron Ekblad leads Florida in average ice time per game (22:50). The 24-year-old registered the 200th point of his NHL career on Feb. 3 in Toronto, becoming just the third defenseman in franchise history to reach that mark. Of his 29 points this season, 15 have come on home ice.

-- Frank Vatrano has recorded nine points (five goals, four assists) over his past nine games.

-- The Panthers have scored the second-most goals in the league at home this season (105).

PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Brett Connolly - Vincent Trocheck - Noel Acciari

Frank Vatrano - Dominic Toninato - Mike Hoffman

Jayce Hawryluk - Colton Sceviour - Mark Pysyk

Defensemen

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman

Mike Matheson - Josh Brown

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Sam Montembeault

Scratches: Denis Malgin, MacKenzie Weegar, Brian Boyle

Injured Reserve: Chris Driedger (lower-body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Jan. 30: G Sam Montembeault and D Riley Stillman were recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Jan. 22: G Sam Montembeault and D Riley Stillman were loaned to AHL Springfield.

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle with Guaranteed Pot of at Least $25,000 

- Pride Night

- NBC 6 Takeover Night

- Territory Takeover (Fort Lauderdale / Wilton Manors)

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Saturday, Feb. 8, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: FSF

Alternate Channels Below:

DTV 654-1

AT&T 721

AT&T HD 1721

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming 932

Tickets: HERE

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