For three weeks, Aleksander Barkov watched from the sidelines.
A left knee injury took the Florida Panthers’ captain and star center off the ice in mid-November. The team didn’t want to rush his return and risk a potential re-aggravation.
The time for Barkov’s return, however, has arrived.
Barkov will return to the lineup as the Panthers play the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday at Enterprise Center to start a three-game road trip that continues with games against the Arizona Coyotes on Friday and the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday.
“I’m ready to go,” Barkov said.
Barkov centered wingers Carter Verhaeghe and Maxim Mamin during the team’s morning skate on Tuesday.
This allowed interim coach Andrew Brunette to keep two of his other three forward lines the same. Sam Bennett continues to center Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Reinhart while Eetu Luostarinen is between wingers Ryan Lomberg and Patric Hornqvist.
Anton Lundell is now centering Frank Vatrano and Owen Tippett, a move that will make Joe Thornton a healthy scratch.
“We didn’t want to disrupt too much of the chemistry,” Brunette said.
Barkov’s injury, which he sustained early in the second period of Florida’s 6-1 win over the New York Islanders on Nov. 16 when Barkov took a knee-on-knee check from Scott Mayfield in the Panthers’ offensive zone, resulted in him missing eight games. Despite the missed time, Barkov is still tied for the team lead with nine goals and ranks tied for fifth on the club with 17 points.
He had the itch to get back on the ice sooner, but understood there was no need to rush back considering how early it was in the season.
The Panthers going 6-2 in his absence, including three consecutive come-from-behind victories last week, made the decision easier, too.
“You want to be a part of it,” Barkov said, “but guys played well. It made the made the time easier for me. Took my time and get ready and now I’m here.”
A few of those players who stepped up in Barkov’s absence, outside of the usual suspects in Huberdeau (three goals, 11 assists, 14 points) and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (three goals, eight assists, 11 points):
▪ Bennett, who took over Barkov’s top-line center duties the last three weeks. He scored three goals and added an assist and has a plus-two rating in that span, meaning the Panthers are outscoring opponents by two goals in even strength and shorthanded situations when Bennett is on the ice.
▪ Reinhart, who jumped to the top line with Huberdeau and Bennett after Anthony Duclair was sidelined with an injury. He scored a team-high four goals over the eight-game stretch without Barkov.
▪ The Panthers’ fourth line of Lomberg, Luostarinen and Hornqvist, which has combined for four goals and has arguably had some of most consistent play from Florida’s forwards over the last three weeks.
“It says we’re really good team,” Brunette said. “We’re deep and we’re a competitive group like I say all the time. There was an opportunity and everybody stepped up, so I think it says a lot about our group. Obviously, Barky is one of the best players in league and we’re excited to have him back. At the same time, I was really excited with how everybody else was playing, so it’s a nice addition to get.”
Barkov isn’t the only player returning. Defenseman Gustav Forsling, who missed the last three games, is set to return to the lineup as well. He will partner up again with Radko Gudas as the Panthers’ second defenseman pairing behind Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar.
“It’s great to see they’re doing well,” Gudas said. “They’re excited to bring some fresh air in there.”