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NOTEBOOK: Driedger Gets the Call; Weegar Returns to Practice

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, Chris Driedger gets the call, MacKenzie Weegar returns to practice and Brett Connolly is looking forward to his first return to Washington, D.C.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Chris Driedger's hot start didn't go unnoticed.

After posting an AHL-leading .938 save percentage through his first 14 appearances with the Springfield Thunderbirds this season, the 25-year-old goaltender was recalled by the Florida Panthers on Tuesday to serve as the team's backup behind starter Sergei Bobrovsky.

"When you can play well and then get rewarded, it's a great feeling," said Driedger, who signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Panthers last April. "I'm just trying to focus on my game and control what I can control. It's nice to be in the NHL and see if I can continue that up here."

A third-round pick (76th overall) of the Ottawa Senators in the 2012 NHL Draft, Driedger caught on with the Thunderbirds during the 2018-19 campaign. In 32 games, he recorded an 18-10-2 record, 2.45 goals against average, one shutout and an AHL-leading .924 save percentage.

In his career, the Winnipeg, Manitoba native has suited up in 138 AHL and 75 ECHL games.

"I bounced up and down in the [ECHL] a little bit, which was humbling for sure," Driedger said. "Then things started going well in Springfield and I kept doing my thing. The main thing for me is that no matter where I am, I'm just focusing on the work ethic. If you practice hard and play hard, things will kind of take care of themselves."

Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said he was impressed with Driedger during training camp.

"It was competitive at that time when we were looking at that decision initially," Quenneville said of the team's heated battle for the backup goaltender job over the summer. "He's a big goalie. He earned a chance to come up here, and we'll see how he does. We're looking forward to it."

With Driedger coming up, the Panthers sent Sam Montembeault down.

In seven appearances this season, the 23-year-old rookie netminder posted a 3-2-1 record with a 3.31 goals-against average and .889 save percentage. A third-round selection (77th overall) in 2015, he debuted with Florida last season and currently owns a 7-5-3 career record in the NHL.

Given that the Panthers have only three back-to-back sets scheduled in December, Quenneville said Montembeault's move to the AHL will allow him to get into a rhythm and play more minutes.

"Get some games and get comfortable," he said. "Young goalies need to play."

CONNOLLY HEADS BACK TO D.C.

Brett Connolly has fond memories of his time in Washington.

After joining the team as a free agent in the summer of 2016, he went on to score at least 15 goals in each his of his three seasons with the club, including a career-high 22 in 2018-19. He also helped the team capture its first Stanley Cup in 2018, tallying six goals in the postseason.

"Before I got there I was at a bit of a crossroads as to what I was as a player," said Connolly, who was drafted by Tampa Bay with the sixth-overall pick in 2010. "I kind of went there and there was very little pressure. They just let me play. It was a really good group of guys that had a lot of fun playing the game. It definitely kick-started my career and my confidence."

That confidence has continued to grow since he joined the Panthers on a four-year contract this past summer. Playing primarily on the second line, the 27-year-old winger has posted 18 points in 24 games, including a team-high 11 goals. Of those goals, 10 have come at even-strength.

Heating up as of late, he's notched five goals over his last five games alone.

"Confidence is a big part of my game," Connolly said. "The coaching staff and my teammates have done a good job of helping me come in and making it an easy transition. I'm playing with a lot of confidence, playing loose, having some fun and working hard. It's been going good so far."

Looking to keep building off his hot start, Connolly should receive a nice ovation from the home crowd when the Panthers visit the Capitals on Wednesday in his first game back in Washington.

"It'll be cool to get there and fly into the city, just little things like that." Connolly said. "See a bunch of people around the rink and fans. It was obviously a special time for me in my career. It'll be good to go back and kind of see the old situation. It's going to be a good game, for sure."

WEEGAR RETURNS TO PRACTICE

MacKenzie Weegar is getting closer to returning to action.

After missing the previous seven games while recovering from an upper-body injury suffered in a 6-5 shootout win at the New York Rangers on Nov. 10, the 25-year-old defenseman was a full participant during this morning's practice. Earlier in the week, he'd been skating prior to practice.

Quenneville said Weegar will travel to Washington, but won't be in the lineup on Wednesday.

"Weegs has had a good stretch of days here," he said. "He's getting close to coming in and returning. Getting some skating in and some exposure to contact today was good."

Prior to the injury, Weegar had been playing alongside Aaron Ekblad on Florida's top-defensive pairing. In the 17 games that he's played, he's registered 10 points (three goals, seven assists).

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