Win vs. Penguins was glimpse at what Panthers could have been (and maybe still can be)

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The Florida Panthers were in a rare celebratory mood after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1, on Saturday in Sunrise and they had the right to be. Not only was the win a crucial one in their chase for the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, but they also got to do it finally — in the 64th game of their season — as a whole group.

Anthony Duclair had only made his season debut the week before, and the right wing’s long-awaited return from offseason surgery inconveniently came just after Sam Bennett and Aleksander Barkov went out of the lineup with injuries. The three forwards finally were all back in the lineup together this weekend, along with every other regular, and the Panthers played like the team they expected to be at the start of the year.

It simultaneously felt like the first day of school — a reunion, of sorts — and a triumphant moment as music boomed from their locker room at FLA Live Arena.

“It was awesome,” Bennett said Saturday after scoring in his first game since Valentine’s Day. “You could feel the energy in the room.”

Bennett had been out with a lower-body injury for more than two weeks. Barkov, the captain, had missed more than a week with an apparent hand injury. With its top two centers sidelined, Florida played a disjointed few weeks of hockey, alternating wins and losses for nearly a month.

Technically, it’s still all the Panthers have done — they’ve won 5 of 10m without a single winning or losing streak and entered Sunday three points out of a wild card with 18 games left — and it means there’s still reason to temper expectations. Florida, after all, did just upset the Stanley Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa on Tuesday, only to lose to the trade-depleted Nashville Predators on Thursday.

Still, the Panthers did walk away from this one with a different level of confidence. They outshot the Penguins, 41-32, and had a 40-22 edge in scoring chances and 21-11 advantage in high-danger chances. It was impossible not to be excited about Florida putting together one of its eight best performances of the season, in terms of expected goal differential, against a likely playoff team on the same day its ideal roster happened to be fully healthy for the first time.

“We have a lot of confidence right now,” Bennett said. “We’re ready to do what it takes and make that push.”

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Simply having Bennett, Barkov and Duclair back, of course, will help and Saturday was evidence. Bennett scored in the first period to put the Panthers up 1-0, Barkov handed out two primary assists in the second and Florida never trailed. Having more scoring options means fewer games when no one shows up on offense.

There’s also a game-over-game, residual benefit of the Panthers returning to pull strength. If there’s any reason to believe Florida’s latest win can set the stage for an extended streak, it’s this one: Paul Maurice didn’t play a single forward 20 minutes and only Barkov played even 18.

“You can run your bench differently, so we had the minutes down quite a bit from what they used to see. ... We can play harder. We can play faster because we have four lines who can play,” the coach said Saturday. “I played Sasha Barkov 28 minutes in Minnesota [last month in an overtime win]. I should’ve been arrested for that.”

Bennett said it was “extremely tough to watch” the Panthers for the last few weeks, knowing he was helpless in trying to prevent them from skidding out of contention. As the games ticked away and Florida’s postseason hopes grew dimmer, the Panthers had a hard time evaluating what they were. Ultimately, they didn’t make any moves ahead of the trade deadline — they were the only team not to make any deals after the calendar flipped to 2023 — because they believed a full-strength roster was a playoff roster.

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The only skater missing now is right wing Patric Hornqvist, who’s out for at least the regular season due to concussions, and even if he was healthy this roster would have to look different because his salary would put Florida over the cap. This is the group the Panthers have been waiting to see all year long and, at least for one night, they provided a reminder of what this team could have been.

It might not be too late for this to still be the team they can be.

“We’re confident,” Barkov said. “We just need to get ready for each game like it’s the main game of our careers.”