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Unpacking "Panthers Uncaged": Cats in Contention

by Veronica Behonick / @herees_ronnie / FloridaPanthers.com

Welcome back to "Unpacking Panthers Uncaged" where we dive deeper into the newest installment of "Panthers Uncaged," presented by Enterprise. Let this serve as your spoiler warning, FLA fans - if you haven't kept up with the cats, check out the latest episode below.

Video: Panthers Uncaged Season 2: Ep 4

WHAT WE LEARNED

1. Despite some adversity, the Panthers keep pushing toward the postseason.

It happened in an instant.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, having a career year and acting as a dynamic force behind the Panthers explosive season, went down after a terrible injury in Dallas at the end of March. He's estimated to miss 12 weeks and is currently on the team's injured reserve list.

"I mean, he's a great guy and a great teammate," forward Jonathan Huberdeau said of the blueliner. "It's a bad break. It was a tough play, and it's going to be tough to be without him."

"But we're going to be there for him and support him," Huberdeau said, as well wishes poured in from around the NHL and beyond.

Tweet from @FlaPanthers: Everyone���s behind you, Ekky ������ pic.twitter.com/cAjGH4VWDh

Reeling from the loss in the lineup, the Cats had to do without more stars like workhorse Patric Hornqvist and captain Aleksander Barkov.

Perennial undercats, the squad's injury-ridden roster faced added pressure to push to the playoffs in a big way.

This was yet another test for the Panthers, who passed with flying colors.

Like so many times before, the next man stepped up to help fill the skates of crucial players missing from the game. Newcomers like defenseman Gustav Forsling have been vital in propelling Florida to the postseason.

Forsling, who was claimed off of waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes during Cats camp, has gotten more ice time in the wake of Ekblad's injury, which in turn has led to notable production.

In the Panthers final regular season game against Carolina, it was Forsling who lit the lamp five minutes into the third period to get the offense rolling again, which eventually led to Florida winning in overtime.

Video: CAR@FLA: Forsling buries Huberdeau's cross ice dish

On the other side of the ice, forwards like Carter Verhaeghe see a golden chance in developing the depth of the lineup while teammates work to heal.

"Everyone is playing more roles," Verhaeghe said of the versatility on the roster. "Guys that haven't been playing are playing now and getting that opportunity."

"I think guys have been doing a great job rolling with it," he remarked. "I think everyone's been stepping up and that's how it has to be when you want to be a winning team."

2. Bob celebrates 500 NHL games.

Sergei Bobrovsky played in his 500th NHL game on February 10, 2020 against the Philadelphia Flyers just before the NHL shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With fans in the building and the team barreling towards the playoffs, the Florida Panthers honored him on April 3, 2021 with a pregame ceremony that included gifts and a video tribute.

Video: Bobrovsky 500 Games Highlights

To open the night's festivities, the Panthers wore special warm-up jerseys showcasing their names in the Cyrillic alphabet and the number 500.

Tweet from @FlaPanthers: Tonight���s warmup threads 🔥Every player���s nameplate will reflect their last name written using the Cyrillic alphabet! pic.twitter.com/vksWAfxPHx

After the game, Bob told the media over Zoom about how he got a kick out of his teammates reacting to their names in Russian. "It was a special night. To see all the jerseys with the last names in Russian," he smiled. "[Watching] the boys talking about [the jerseys] and trying to figure what was going on with their names, and all the way through."

Following warm-ups, the team honored the goaltender with a commemorative silver stick and a custom plaque highlighting some of his greatest moments.

The surprise that took the cake, however, was from his teammates: a once in a lifetime trip to Africa for a Tanzanian safari adventure.

"I didn't expect that," the netminder shared. "But it's something I've planned for in my life, to go visit there and see the animals. I'm really excited and I have to plan it perfectly. I really appreciate the gift. It's special and it's awesome."

Fans in attendance got to see a video featuring Bobrovsky's friends, family and teammates played on the jumbotron.

Video: Bobrovsky 500 Games Congratulations

Bob, cheers to 500 and more!

To learn more about Bobrovsky's career, visit the Baptist Health Virtual Vault collection HERE.

3. It was written in the stars for Matt Kiersted

General manager Bill Zito called on a few young players to reinforce some of the gaps left in the banged-up locker room. Signing on straight out of college, goaltender and first round draft pick Spencer Knight and free agent defenseman Matt Kiersted immediately joined the squad.

Knight would go on to make his NHL debut on April 19 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he would earn his first win in the League.

Fresh from the University of North Dakota, Kiersted played in his first game as a Florida Panther on April 3. 

"I came to the rink this morning and they told me to prepare as if I was going to play," the 23-year-old rookie revealed in a video conference call. 

 

Kiersted, a Minnesota native, seemed to be fated to suit up for the Panthers one day.

Tweet from @KierstedMatt: Honored and extremely excited to have signed my first contract with the @FlaPanthers thank you to family, friends, and coaches for helping me get to where I am. Work starts now 👊🏼 pic.twitter.com/8FVAtV3PgK

"That's a Mark Parrish jersey I was wearing," Kiersted said of his tweet, smiling.

Parents Bob and Candace traveled with others in the Kiersted family to see Matt's debut. They credit former Florida Panther and old friend Mark Parrish for their sons' love of hockey.

"We had a bunch of buddies playing softball, and Mark was on the team," Bob Kiersted explained. "It started there, because I wanted my kids to play basketball" Bob laughed. "[Mark] talked us into letting the kids play hockey…the whole family has been in hockey since then."

Two decades later, Matt Kiersted took his rookie lap on the very same ice Parrish played on at BB&T Center.

Tweet from @FlaPanthers: Let's rock.#CBJvsFLA is LIVE! pic.twitter.com/CDVR5dc52m

"It's surreal," Bob observed. "I'm proud of him. He worked hard for it his whole life."

Kiersted played well, and his coach took notice.

"He looked comfortable, he looked poised," Quenneville said after the game. "He did a lot of good things. I like the way he sees and processes the game. He's positionally aware and has a good stick. It was a really good game for him to start."

BEST MOMENT

Following a successful surgery, Ek is back at BB&T Center! While #5 isn't on the ice, he was spotted cheering on his teammates at the rink.

GIF OF THE EPISODE

A smiling captain = instant serotonin boost.

Need a refresh? Watch all episodes of Panthers Uncaged now at FloridaPanthers.com HERE.

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