Cat Bites: Panthers like what they’ve seen from rookie Trocheck

Vincent Trocheck's first career goal in the big league was an empty netter against the New Jersey Devils.

SUNRISE, Fla. Vincent Trocheck capped a busy week with his first "snipe."

The rookie center, who hasn’t had the time to be nervous during his first stint in the NHL, admitted to some butterflies as he lined up his first goal.

"The puck was rolling a little bit and I was thinking, ‘If I miss this, it’s an absolute joke,’" Trocheck said, "Then one of the guys was backchecking and out of my peripheral [vision], it looked like he was going to throw his stick. I actually legitimately felt like it took five minutes for me to skate down the ice, but it felt good afterward."

The goal might have been an easy one — an empty netter — for the former junior 50-goal scorer. But after taking on a veteran’s workload given to him by coach Peter Horachek, Trocheck’s milestone tally is a well-earned reward.

"I thought he had some good looks in the third period as well," Horachek said following Florida’s 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday. "He’s playing big minutes. He was out there against [Devils center Adam] Henrique, their young, star player, who is a very proficient scorer as well and he did a very good job against him."

His lineup riddled with injuries, Horachek has thrust the former third-round draft pick into situations often reserved for more experienced players — power play, shorthanded, even a crucial faceoff in the final minute of play.

Normally, one might expect to see a rookie get fourth-line minutes until he earns his time. Trocheck has played no fewer than 17 minutes a game and has already topped the 20-minute mark twice since joining the Panthers on March 7.

And for a player who has a knack for the net — and the goals to his credit — Trocheck might have been expected to contribute offense immediately. But that’s not the case. Trocheck knows he’s here to "focus on the little things and do everything the right way."

"When coach asked me to do something, I go out there and execute it the way he wants you to do it," he said.

Perhaps that’s what has allowed Horachek to lean on the 20-year-old. It is not that Trocheck’s only talent is scoring, rather a bonus in addition to a versatile skill set.

"He’s a good kid that wants to get better," Horachek said. "He’s someone that I need as a faceoff guy. He’s someone that kills penalties that can win faceoffs. He’s smart on the power play. He can make plays.

"This is an opportunity for him to pick it up in that situation. I think he’s trending in the right direction."

HAYES FINDS HIS PLACE

For a while it looked like the Panthers might need time to develop winger Jimmy Hayes.

Acquired in the deal which sent Kris Versteeg to the Chicago Blackhawks, Hayes found himself struggling to crack Florida’s lineup. Hayes was a healthy scratch in nine of the team’s 16 games leading up to the Olympic break.

Horachek found the perfect spot for the 6-foot-6, 221-pound forward: the edge of the opponents’ crease.

"I said this is where you’re going to make your mark," Horachek said. "You’re going to be a big guy that is hard to move. We need more of it. You’re a guy that can do that if you’re willing to get down there and grow more grunt to your game, separate people down low, cycle, check pucks and get back to that net. And you’ve got good enough hands around the net that you can make a good enough living."

Hayes obliged. It proved the opportunity for the winger not just to get back into the lineup, but see an increase in ice time.

Since taking on his new role, Hayes has three goals and three assists in seven games. On March 9, against his hometown Boston Bruins, Hayes recorded the first two-goal game of his career. Both tallies came with the big man parked right in front of the net.

"It’s a work in progress every day," Hayes said. "I’ve got to continue to be hard-nosed and big and develop my game every day, be that consistent power forward every night. I’ve got to continue to strive to be that player and continue to develop my game into that."

Cheerleader gallery

Horachek sees Hayes as being able to develop into a player similar to "[Patric] Hornqvist, [Tomas] Holmstrom and Ryan Smyth."

"He’s willing to go there, be there," Horachek said. "He’s around at the right place at the right time. We need more of that. We need more of what I guess they call them greasy goals, dirty goals. I just call them goals. In the NHL right now, you’ve got to be around the crease if you want to keep scoring."

SO WE MEET AGAIN

What are the chances someone at the NHL foresaw a Florida reunion with Roberto Luongo and his old creasemate and team in a three-day span this weekend?

Friday night, Luongo faced off against former teammate and new Devils netminder Corey Schneider. Luongo will face his old team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Sunday.

"You think about it in retrospect, it is kind of weird," Luongo said. "Not a lot of people saw that scenario, but it’s done now. We’ve moved on."

Luongo and Schneider split time in Vancouver’s crease the last two seasons before the Canucks traded Schneider to New Jersey during the 2013 Draft. Friday was the third time they faced each other since Schneider’s trade and first since Luongo joined the Panthers.

Luongo won all three meetings.

"I actually feel bad. They need the points more than us," Luongo said. "We’re competing out there. I give it my all and so does he. I’m happy to get the win."

Luongo said he wasn’t sure if Sunday’s matchup will hold more meaning than Friday’s.

"I don’t know how I am going to feel," Luongo said. "But it is definitely going to feel weird."

MILESTONE CATS

In addition to Trocheck scoring his first NHL goal, Quinton Howden achieved the feat in the first period of Florida’s 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The winger slipped a wrist shot just under goaltender Ben Bishop’s right arm. With the 6-foot-6 Bolts netminder blocking the net, Howden didn’t realize it went in until he skated behind the goal line.

"I didn’t know until [Pirri] came from behind and celebrated," Howden said. "It’s kind of funny how it works. You get better chances, but that’s one that goes in."

It took Howden, who appeared in the Panthers lineup last season, 19 games to register his first tally. The former first-round pick in 2010 now has two goals in two games.

"There are more guys from San Antonio and that makes it more comfortable," Howden said. "I know lots of the guys more or less. It makes you play your game and that’s what I am trying to do."

Alex Petrovic, who skated in his 12th game, registered his first NHL point with an assist on Brandon Pirri’s goal with 27 seconds left in the loss to Tampa Bay.

Friday night against New Jersey, winger Tomas Fleischmann appeared in his 500th NHL game.

BERGENHEIM COMES OUT BLASTING

Sometimes, you have to play the hot hand.

During Florida’s March 7 game against Buffalo, Sean Bergenheim registered a whopping 24:42 of ice time and 12 shots.

Ice time in the 20-minute range is usually reserved for defensemen. Bergenheim’s double digits in shots came two shy of matching the franchise record.

"I felt good, personally," Bergenheim said. "As a line we worked well too. The guys gave me good passes. I just felt good out there."

Horachek said he doesn’t want to get in the habit of playing forwards 20 minutes, but was okay with putting the winger’s hot stick back on the ice.

"Normally if you played that many minutes as a forward, you’re kind of exhausted and you wouldn’t be able to move," Horachek said. "I didn’t feel that during the game. I definitely don’t want to be doing that on a regular basis."

LOOKING AHEAD

After hosting the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday afternoon, the Panthers will embark on a four-game West Coast road trip. Florida will play every other day starting Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks, followed by the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday, Los Angeles Kings on Saturday and Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.

The Panthers are 2-4-2 against Pacific Division teams this season.

"It’s not about liking it. You’ve got to do it," Huberdeau said of the Panthers playing every other day until the end of the season. "It’s part of the schedule. Last year, it was kind of the same. It’s a longer season and we got a break. It’s kind of similar, but we’ve got to battle through it. Everybody has the same schedule, so no excuses."

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