In the first half of their back-to-back on Friday night, the Panthers (18-20-8) ended a seven-game losing streak with a 3-1 win over Toronto in Vincent Trocheck's long-awaited return to the lineup. After missing 27 games, Trocheck said he felt no worse for wear in his first game back.
"I've never felt better," said Trocheck, who had been sidelined since Nov. 19 with a broken ankle. "I'm just thankful I'm able to come back and play hockey again. It's been, like I said, a long time coming. You never really realize how much you miss hockey until watching your teammates play without you."
Moving right back into his usual spot as the team's second-line center, Trocheck provided the Panthers with an immediate spark, as the 25-year-old former all-star set up Mike Matheson with a skillful drop pass for what went on to stand as the game-winning goal late in the first period.
In addition to that assist, Trocheck also racked up a team-high seven hits in 18:12 of ice time.
"What a great addition, that's for sure," Matheson said of Trocheck's return. "He's a guy that logs a lot of minutes and is in every situation that the game presents. Having a guy like that is hugely important, whether it's to add to the offensive side or clean up things defensively."
As Matheson said, Trocheck, who set career highs in goals (31) and points (45) last season, brings more to the team than just his offense. By being inserted back into the lineup, Florida was able to deploy one of its most-balanced attacks of the season against the Maple Leafs.
The result? A top-to-bottom defensive effort.
Entering the night ranking fifth in the league in shot attempts per 60 minutes (61.56) at 5-on-5 this season, Toronto was limited to just 34 against the Panthers -- their third-fewest in a game this season -- and 21 total shots on goal, which was just three more than their season-low.
"I think we're starting to turn a corner, but we've got a long way to go," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "Tonight's a good example of 20 guys doing their jobs, everyone contributing [to show] how we can play…We've got to get on the plane, get some rest, and try and have that same game plan tomorrow in Nashville."
With Trocheck back in the fold and two more games left on the schedule until the all-star break, Florida now turns its full attention to the Predators, who sit in second place in the central division despite losing three of their last four games, including a 5-1 loss against Winnipeg on Thursday.
The top-defensive team in the league for most of the season, Nashville has slipped to third in the league (2.61 goals allowed per game) after surrendering 17 goals over their last four games.
The Panthers' own defense will also catch quite the break in this contest, as the Predators (28-17-4) will be without their leader scorer, Ryan Johansen, who is currently serving a two-game suspension after high-sticking Mark Scheifele during the team's last outing against the Jets.
Johansen, who has 42 points this season, has seven points in 14 career games against Florida.
"I think if we can roll into the break with momentum, it'll give us a little time to relax during the break and then get ready to roll during the second half," Trocheck said.
-- Aleksander Barkov ranks second on the Panthers in points (44), including two goals and three assists over his last eight games. The 23-year-old captain ranks third in the NHL in takeaways (64) and drawn penalties (tied-27), while his 23:08 of ice time per game paces all forwards.
-- Mike Hoffman leads the Panthers in goals (23), power-play goals leader (10) and shots on goal (150). The 29-year-old winger is one of just six players in the NHL this season to score at least 10 power-play goals, and is three away from matching the career-high 13 he had 2016-17.
-- Keith Yandle currently leads all Panthers defensemen in points (37) and assists (31), while his 23 power-play points rank fifth in the NHL and first among all defensemen.
-- Aaron Ekblad leads all Panthers defensemen in goals (8). With just one more score, the 22-year-old will surpass Robert Svehla (61) for the most goals by a blueliner in franchise history.
-- Frank Vatrano has produced four points (three goals, one assist) over his last five games. In his first full season with the Panthers, the 24-year-old winger has already reached new career-highs in goals (14) and points (21).
-- Florida has gone 20-for-22 (90.9 percent) on the penalty kill over its last 10 games.
GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME (UNCONFIRMED)
James Reimer (8-8-5, 3.21 GAA, .893 SV%) vs. Pekka Rinne (17-12-3, 2.51 GAA, .913 SV%)
With Roberto Luongo starting on Thursday, it's likely that the Panthers turn to Reimer against the Predators. The 30-year-old backup is 4-2-3 over his last 10 appearances, posting an .893 save percentage during that span. In his career against Nashville, he owns a 3-1-0 record with a .904 save percentage. With the break coming up, however, there is a slight chance Florida could actually deploy Luongo again, as the 39-year-old faced only 21 shots against Toronto.
An all-star this season, Rinne will likely be who the Panthers see in net tonight for the Predators. The 36-year-old veteran has been mired in somewhat of a slump as of late, picking up the loss in each of his las three outings while allowing a combined 14 goals. Overall, he has lost nine of his last 12 starts. In his career against Florida, he's gone 5-4-0 with a .921 save percentage.
PROJECTED LINEUP (NO MORNING SKATE)
Frank Vatrano - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Nick Bjugstad
Mike Hoffman - Henrik Borgstrom - Denis Malgin
Jayce Hawryluk - Jared McCann - Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
Ian McCoshen - Josh Brown
Scratches: Micheal Haley, Troy Brouwer, Bogdan Kiselevich
Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder), Jamie McGinn (back), MacKenzie Weegar (upper-body)
- Jan. 18: F Juho Lammikko was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
- Jan. 18: D Josh Brown was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- Jan. 7: D Ian McCoshen was recalled from Springfield (AHL)
- Jan. 7: D Chris Wideman was loaned to Springfield (AHL)
HOW TO WATCH
When: Saturday, Jan. 19, 8:00 p.m.
Where: Bridgestone Arena - Nashville, TN
TV: Fox Sports Florida (Alternate Channels Below)
Dish HD: 9579
Dish Hopper: 412-29
DTV HD: 654-1
AT&T HD: 1721
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)
Watch Party: Thanks to the new "Territory on Tap" program, every road game now offers a chance for a watch party in South Florida! To see which local bars and restaurants will have drink specials and giveaways for today's game,visit the official "Territory on Tap" page!