Cat Bites: Huberdeau returns with intent of finishing strong

Jonathan Huberdeau snapped a 19-game scoring drought when he got a second-effort goal against the Flyers.

James Guillory

SUNRISE, Fla. — Three games. That is all Jonathan Huberdeau wants to focus on after a difficult season.

The reigning Calder Trophy winner fell victim to a sophomore slump. He’s had to adjust his game to accept more defensive responsibility at the expense of scoring. Florida’s top-line winger last season, Huberdeau has been shifted as low as the third line and endured the occasional benching.

And to top all that, he missed 11 games with a concussion.

Florida has erred on the side of caution when it comes to its injured players, and perhaps it was not really necessary for the winger to return.

But Huberdeau worked to get healthy and back into the lineup Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers. He expressed the importance of returning and finishing strong in Florida’s last three games.

”When you don’t play for three weeks, you want to get back out there and do everything you can to help the team,” Huberdeau said. ”I want to finish the last three games the right way.

”I want to finish the season more positive than it was three weeks ago. I’ve got to finish stronger and I’ll be more positive heading into the summer.”

Florida Panthers news

It did not take long for Huberdeau to come through on his personal commitment. He snapped a 19-game goal drought in his first game back.

The winger charged after a loose puck and held off all-star defenseman Mark Streit in the slot before wristing the puck between goaltender Steve Mason’s pads. Huberdeau followed with an emotional celebration along the boards, throwing his arms up in the air and screaming — a well-deserved moment to let go of frustration.

”It was a second-effort kind goal that I wanted to see out of him,” Panthers coach Peter Horachek said. ”I want to see him playing that way. I want to see him fighting for pucks, leaning in, and he did exactly that. It was really good to see him get that. It should propel him to play (like that) even more.”

BARKOV’S BACK

Aleksander Barkov returned to skating alongside his teammates during Tuesday’s morning skate. The rookie was all smiles taking part in drills and in the dressing room afterward.

The 18-year-old suffered a knee injury while playing for Finland at the the 2014 Winter Games and is not expected to play again this season.

”I’m a hockey player, and I want to be on the ice,” Barkov said. ”I am very happy to be with the team.”

Cheerleader gallery

Even though his first NHL season was cut short, he’s pleased with the results. In 54 games, Barkov registered eight goals and 16 assists.

”It took me a while to adjust, but I think I played pretty solid,” he said. ”Now that I know I can play at this level, I want to be better.”

But the highlight of his year may very well be the two games he played for with the Finnish Olympic team.

”It was pretty nice,” Barkov said. ”Coach told me I would play with Teemu (Selanne) and (Mikael) Granlund. I played two games with them, and I will always remember those two games. Selanne was my idol when I was younger and I got to play with him.”

LOU’S FINE

All signs pointed to Roberto Luongo getting the start Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers until backup Dan Ellis stepped onto the ice first at game time.

Luongo, who went through his customary game day routine of a morning skate, leaving the ice first and leading the team onto the ice for warmups, sat out with an upper-body injury. He was available to Florida as a backup.

Horachek indicated Luongo’s ailment was ”muscular” and that if it had been a playoff game, the goalie ”would have played.”

Ellis said he had an indication earlier the day Luongo might not be able to start Tuesday, and received official word during the team’s second warmup drill.

Florida has deferred to caution in the past when it comes to the starting netminder. When Carolina’s Radek Dvorak collided with Luongo during the first period on March 27, the Panthers chose to go with Ellis for the final two periods of the contest.

QUITE A CHANGE

When the Dallas Stars visited Sunday afternoon, they might have thought they were playing an entirely different team than the one they faced Opening Night.

Only seven Panthers who were in the lineup on Oct. 3 played Sunday.

Among the changes: five players were injured (Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Brad Boyes, Tom Gilbert, Tomas Kopecky); six traded (Shawn Matthias, Kris Versteeg, Mike Weaver, Marcel Goc, Tim Thomas and Jacob Markstrom) and two in the minors (Ryan Whitney, Drew Shore).

And that doesn’t even account for changes behind the bench (head coach Kevin Dineen and assistants Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay) and the front office (assistant GM Mike Santos).

TWEET OF THE WEEK

With the Vancouver Canucks battling for a playoff spot earlier this week — they have since been eliminated — Luongo came up big in keeping his former team in the mix.

Luongo finished with 35 saves, 16 alone in the third period, as the Panthers posted a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over the eighth-place Stars.

Luongo is in fact on the Canucks payroll as the franchise agreed to retain 15 percent of his salary when they shipped him to Florida at the trade deadline.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Panthers wrap up the 2013-14 season with home contests against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. The team will meet for the final time on Sunday before players go their separate ways.

Other dates on the offseason calendar Florida will have circled:

— April 15: NHL Draft Lottery. Last April, the Panthers had a 25 percent chance of selecting first overall, but odds worked against them as the Colorado Avalanche won the lottery. With two games to play, Florida can finish no better than third-to-last in the NHL and no worse than second-to-last. If the they finish above the Edmonton Oilers, the Panthers would have a 14.2 percent shot at winning the top pick; below, and that number improves to 18.8 percent.

— May 9-25: IIHF World Championship in Belarus. Players may have the opportunity to compete for their countries at the international tournament. Brian Campbell (Canada), Tomas Fleischmann (Czech Republic), Tomas Kopecky (Slovakia) and Nick Bjugstad (United States) were among Panthers players who participated last year.

— June 27-28: NHL Draft in Philadelphia. Florida stands to end up with at worst a Top 4 pick this year. Do they go after North American talent such as Samuel Bennett or Aaron Ekblad, or a European prospect such as Kasperi Kapanen or Will Nylander? Or does GM Dale Tallon use the selection as trade bait in a draft-day deal?

— July 1: Free agency begins. Florida’s owners have committed to becoming a cap team, and the Panthers could go on another spending spree to find much-needed goal scoring. This season’s free agent class is average, though, with the top goal scorer being 36-year-old Jarome Iginla. What is more likely to happen is Florida shelling out big bucks to keep top restricted free agents Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Dylan Olsen, Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri in the fold for the long-term.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.