Aleksander Barkov is breathing a sigh of relief.
The Florida Panthers top-line center is back in the lineup tonight against the Detroit Red Wings after sitting out just one game with an upper-body injury suffered in Thursday's victory over the Winnipeg Jets at BB&T Center.
"I feel great," Barkov said after Monday's morning skate at Little Caesars Arena. "I'm happy to be back. I got lucky that I didn't have to be out longer. The trainers did a good job. I feel good and I'm ready to go."
The NHL's leader in average ice time among forwards, Barkov's work-horse mentality -- he averages a whopping 22:23 a night -- and offensive production was clearly missed in Florida's 7-3 loss to Colorado on Saturday. The 22-year-old ranks third on the Panthers in points (27) and second in goals (10), while also posting a career-best 55 percent success rate in the faceoff circle.
"Barkov does it all for this team," said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau. "We still have to be better defensively, but it's good to have him back."
The Panthers (11-14-4) will play each of their next five games on the road, where they own a 5-8-1 record this season. Florida is 1-2-2 over its last five games and has scored three-or-more goals just three times in their last 12. With victories in two of their last three games away from home, Barkov said the Panthers will need to find a way to come together in order to continue that success on this trip.
"When you have those long trips, you want to get together as a group and play good game every game," said Barkov, who has six points (4-2-6) in his past six games. "Those greasy road games, you want to play all the time. We played against Detroit once. We know they're a fast, skilled team. We need to play our own game and just try to win.
"When you win on the road, you feel a lot more confidence as a team because you don't have the home crowd behind you. You win as a group and it just gives you confidence to go forward. That's what we need."
The Red Wings (11-13-5) also enter tonight's matchup on the back of a blowout loss. Detroit, which has dropped eight of its last nine games, suffered a 6-1 defeat at the hands of St. Louis on Saturday. With their defense and goaltending in a rut, the Red Wings have allowed 27 goals over their last five games.
But with Panthers starting goalie Roberto Luongo out for an extended period of time with and injury and backup James Reimer struggling in net - he's allowed four-or-more goals in eight of 16 appearances this season - the Red Wings believe they can come out on top if the game turns into a shootout.
"This is a big week for us, so we need to get off to a good start tonight," Red Wings center Dylan Larkin said. "We know they've got a backup goalie in and we have to get pucks on the net."
As for the Panthers, who trail Boston by six points for third place in the Atlantic Division, a win tonight is exactly what the team needs in order to build some necessary, sustainable momentum throughout their crucial, five-game road trip.
"The first one's going to be the most important to set the tone," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. "It'll give us a little bit of momentum going through the rest of the road trip. We talked about it a lot. This road trip means a lot going into Christmas break right now. You need to be in the hunt going into Christmas break or you'll have a lot of work to do. It starts tonight."
- Jonathan Huberdeau has registered a team-leading 31 points and 22 assists over 29 games this season. His 22 assists this season rank him tied for seventh in the NHL. The 24-year old winger enters tonight's game with nine points (2-7-9) over his last six games.
- Denis Malgin enters tonight on a career-high three-game goal streak. The 20-year old has four goals in six games since being recalled from AHL Springfield on Nov. 27.
- Vincent Trocheck enters tonight's game leading the Panthers with 12 goals and ranks second on the team with 30 points. He has also posted seven points (2-5-7) over his current four-game point streak. A former member of the Little Caesars AAA organization, Trocheck won two national Midwest Elite Hockey League Major Bantam titles at Detroit's former arena, the Joe Louis Arena. "I've seen a ton of games at Joe Louis," Trocheck said, preparing for his first game at the new Little Caesars Arena. "It's cool to see, cool to be here, cool to play here."
- Aaron Ekblad enters tonight's game riding a career-high three-game goal streak. He is the third defenseman in franchise history to score at least one goal in three consecutive team games. A native of nearby Windsor, Ontario, Ekblad expects to have plenty of fans in the stands for tonight's matchup. "Lots of family here, he said. "I circle it every year on my calendar. A chance to come play in front of them."
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad
Jamie McGinn - Vincent Trocheck - Denis Malgin
Connor Brickley - Jared McCann - Radim Vrbata
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
MacKenzie Weegar - Alex Petrovic
Scratches: Ian McCoshen, Roberto Luongo
Injured Reserve: Evgenii Dadonov (upper-body; games missed: 7)
- Dec. 6: G Harri Sateri recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- Dec. 5: F Henrik Haapala loaned to Springfield (AHL)
HOW TO WATCH
When: Monday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Little Caesars Arena - Detroit, MI
TV coverage: FOX Sports Florida (check local listings)
Florida Panthers Radio Network Presented by HARD Lifestyle Beverages: 940 WINZ (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)
Where to stream it: FOX Sports GO and NHL.TV (outside state of Florida)