Finally after working out to get back healthy and countless questions by the media on their return, it seems that the Panthers will get two of their charges back for a big contest at the BankAtlantic Center with the Buffalo Sabres.
Asked once again following morning skate, head coach Kevin Dineen announced that both forward Kris Versteeg
and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov
should be back as long as there are no unseen complications.
"Yeah. They're positive (to go)," said Dineen. "We expect to see both those guys in the swing of things unless things change in the next couple of hours."
Both players couldn't hold back how excited they were to return to the ice following the skate after being told by the media that Dineen said they were a go.
"It's been a long time. I've been looking forward to this to this night," said Kulikov who has missed the last 23 games dating back to January 24th. "I've been looking forward to coming back and help out the team."
"I'm excited to go here," said Versteeg who has missed the last nine games, starting Febraury 28th. "It's been a little while now. I'm definitely ready, more than ready."
With the Panthers winning their last three games and looking to make it a perfect four for four on the homestand, both players are nervous about messing up the flow. They've put a lot of pressure on themselves to not only fit in but to be better than when they left.
"It's a tough time of the year. Every game is like a playoff game," said Kulikov who was fifth on the team in scoring with 24 points at the time of his injury. "You don't want to go into the game and get used to the game. You don't have time for that. You just have to go out there, pick up from where you left off and play even better."
"It's just about going out there and getting a job done on the ice and preparing for the two points and not worrying about easing into the game," said Versteeg. "Getting into the game and trying to be a factor."
Dineen doesn't think the missed time will be a factor, especially in Versteeg's case as the coach compared him to one of tonight's opposition who also missed time with an injury.
"You take a guy like Tyler Ennis who had a long stretch off and he's come back and he's played so well," said Dineen. "I think what happens is there's frustration when you're not able to get into the lineup and you come back with enthusiasm. I think Kris will really add some quality to our lineup."
Adding two more players to the lineup gives the coaching staff plenty of ammo to get the best out of their players. If you want to stay in the lineup, you have to have production.
"When you get a coveted spot in the lineup, your job is to make sure that you make the coaches have a tough decision making every day and how they're going to put their lineup together," said Dineen.
"You want enthusiasm and some kind of production. It may not be on the scoresheet but there has to be a positive effect for every player in the lineup for us to be successful."
That has been going on the past few games and will continue against a Sabres team that has been on a roll of late, going 9-2-3 in their last 14 games to climb into the playoff picture. Currently tenth in the Conference, Buffalo can climb to within one point of idle Washington for eighth place in the East with a win.
"We looked at this as a key stretch and we're still right in the middle of it," said Dineen. "We have to respect our opponent, know we have a team that's coming in that's playing a good stretch of hockey right now and they are surging. It has a great implications in the lineup for us as well as them. It will make for a very exciting game."