CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – California, here we come.
The Florida Panthers locker room at Panthers IceDen was buzzing on Monday afternoon as the team made its final preparations before hitting the road to battle a trio of Western Conference foes.
The Panthers (5-4-2) will kick off their three-game road trip with back-to-back contests against the Anaheim Ducks (2-7-2) and San Jose Sharks (6-5-0) on Wednesday and Thursday respectively before wrapping things up against the Los Angeles Kings (7-4-0) on Saturday.
Florida went 2-1-0 in its only visit to the Golden State last season.
“Last year, I think we had a pretty good road trip to the West Coast, and we want to try and replicate that,” said forward Nick Bjugstad, who has notched four goals and seven points in 11 games this season.
“We’re playing pretty well and we’ve just got to bear down in these (games). The West is tough to play against. They play really good defensively, they’re strong, and they don’t leave you much room out there. We’ve got to come in ready to play.”
Adding to the Panthers growing confidence as they embark on their first West Coast swing of the season is the impending return of a future Hall of Famer to their top-scoring line.
Having missed the past two games due to injury, 43-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr was a full participant in Monday’s practice and is expected to re-join the Panthers lineup alongside Bjugstad at some point during the trip.
“It was my goal to get through the practice and I did it,’’ said Jagr. “It’s a good step. If I could have, I would have played. I just couldn’t. Hopefully things will even get better over the next two days.
“The first practice is always the hardest. I just don’t want to over-do anything.”
Jagr currently leads the Panthers in goals (6) and points (10), but has been hampered by various injuries since he initially sustained a hip flexor strain in a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 13.
After a successful return to practice and with a few more days of rest to look forward to upon his arrival to California, however, the Panthers are confident that Jagr’s return will come sooner rather than later.
“He did a full practice and that sounds good,” said head coach Gerard Gallant. “We would love to have him back, we miss him when he’s not there. We want to make sure he’s ready and I think he is.
“He’s a big part of our team and it showed. If it was a long-term injury, we wouldn’t put him in. But he thinks it is fine.”
MONTOYA OFF TO A HOT START
With their third back-to-back of the season on the horizon, the Panthers may turn to backup goaltender Al Montoya for a spot start during their upcoming trip.
Montoya, 30, has allowed two-or-fewer goals in each of his first three starts this season, providing a reliable safety net in Florida’s crease behind starter Roberto Luongo while also earning the trust of his coaches.
“This is everything I’ve worked for,” said Montoya, who has posted a 2-0-1 record with a 1.63 goals-against average and .941 save percentage this season. “I try to be the strongest guy on the ice. I try to push myself. I know what it takes and what I need to do to get myself ready.”
As he approaches his fourth start of the season, Montoya, who didn’t make his fourth start last season until Nov. 16, welcomes the increased playing time that his exceptional play has earned him thus far.
“It feels great to play,” Montoya said with a smile. “The more you play, the more comfortable you feel. At the same time, you’ve got to push yourself to be at that level every night no matter what.”
PETROVIC ON THE MEND
Defenseman Alex Petrovic, who suffered a lower-body injury after blocking a shot in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, was absent from Monday’s practice as he continues to nurse a swollen shin.
“There’s nothing broke, but it was painful to put the skate on so we told him to take the day off,” Gallant said. “He should be fine, we fully expect him to skate [Tuesday].”
Petrovic, 23, has tallied two assists to go along with 30 hits and 15 blocks in 10 games this season.