SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Panthers are back in motion.
Following a brief pause due to a spike in COVID-19 outbreaks across the NHL, the Panthers were one of a handful of teams from around the league that returned to practice on Sunday.
"I'm really happy that we're back at the rink and going forward as a team here today," Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette smiled. "It was really good to see guys back on the ice."
After having four games postponed due to the pause -- Dec. 18 at Minnesota, Dec. 21 at Chicago, Dec. 23 vs. Nashville and Dec. 27 at Carolina -- the Panthers are scheduled to resume their season with a matchup against the New York Rangers at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday.
Tied for the sixth-most points in the NHL, Florida currently sits at 18-7-4 on the season.
"I've seen a lot of resiliency," Panthers general manager Bill Zito said of the team's season to date. "Up and down the lineup, I've seen players adapting. They're trying to help each other, trying to be good teammates and worry about the team first. I've seen guys push themselves."
Although Jonathan Huberdeau, Eetu Luostarinen, Owen Tippett and MacKenzie Weegar remain in COVID-19 protocols, the Panthers still had 20 players on the ice for this afternoon's practice.
Up front, Aleksander Barkov centered Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett centered Frank Vatrano and Sam Reinhart, Anton Lundell was in the middle of Ryan Lomberg and Patric Hornqvist, and Joe Thornton was flanked by Mason Marchment and Maxim Mamin.
Aaron Ekblad, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour, Lucas Carlsson and Olli Juolevi were all on the blue line, while Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonas Johansson manned the nets.
Zito said that rookie goalie Spencer Knight will also be coming up from the AHL on Monday.
"You could feel that they're ready to go," Brunette said of the group. "This is unusual for us, this kind of long break, especially around Christmas. It's a really different feeling right now, so it's good to get back on the ice and feel like a kid again. There's an excitement with being back."
When asked specifically about players returning from injuries like Barkov (out since Dec. 7), Marchment (out since Nov. 8) and Mamin (out since Dec. 10), Brunette said they are all still considered "day to day," but are trending in the right direction and "getting ready to go again."
"Everyone that I talked to felt pretty good," Brunette said.
With things starting to fall back into place, the Cats are eager to get going once again.
"The passion for the game is extremely high right now," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said enthusiastically. "Getting back out there was awesome. Seeing the boys was amazing."
WORLD JUNIORS BEGIN
The 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship is officially underway.
Scheduled to run from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Red Deer and Edmonton, Alberta, the Panthers have six prospects competing at the event: Mackie Samoskevich (USA), Ty Smilanic (USA), Justin Sourdif (Canada), Kasper Puutio (Finland), Elliot Ekmark (Sweden) and Jakub Kos (Czechia).
Sidelined to start the event, Smilanic was injured during a pre-tournament exhibition this week.
"Really happy to see that Justin Sourdif is playing [for Canada]," said Ekblad, who represented Canada at the World Juniors back in 2014. "He's one of our prospects, so really happy to see that and we'll be rooting him on. The passion for your country runs hot this time of year."
Indeed it does.
Pitting the top players under age 20 from 10 different countries against each other, the World Juniors is without question one of the most exciting international events in hockey each year.
Shining bright at last year's tournament, three current Panthers prospects took home medals as Knight guided the United States to gold, while Lundell and Puutio captured bronze with Finland.
"It's so much fun," Zito said. "It has passion and excitement. It's great for us to watch our guys. It's technical when you're watching and scouting, but it is a lot of fun. … If you're kind of a part-time hockey fan and you watch the tournament, then you'll become a full hockey fan overnight."
To read more about Panthers prospects at the World Juniors and for a full broadcast schedule, click HERE.