SUNRISE, Fla. — The way things have been going lately, the Florida Panthers may be afraid to step on the ice on Saturday night against the visiting Colorado Avalanche, and here’s why:
In their two previous games, the Panthers (11-13-4) have suffered one major injury in each, losing starting goalie Roberto Luongo on Monday against the New York Islanders and star center Aleksander Barkov on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Luongo appeared to injure his right groin while making a right-leg kick save on Ryan Pulock.
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Barkov was hit in the face by the shoulder of Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba. The Panthers said the injury was “upper body,” but it could be concussion protocol.
“Losing Barkie, we had to scramble there,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said.
The Avalanche (12-13-2) have been scrambling, too. They have lost four games in a row and six of seven, grabbing just three points during that span.
Overall, Colorado is much improved from the disaster that was last season, when the Avalanche set franchise records for fewest wins (22) and points (48), posting the worst record (22-56-4) since the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000.
Given that, Colorado’s 4-1-0 start this year was a major surprise, and the Avs have built a pair of three-game win streaks into the first quarter of the season.
Their top six scorers are all 26 years old or younger as the rebuilding effort is underway.
Nathan MacKinnon, 22, leads the team in assists (22) and points (32) and is tied with captain Gabriel Landeskog, 25, with 10 goals each. Landeskog scored Thursday on his first shift of his first game back from a four-game suspension.
In addition to those standouts, Mikko Rantanen, 21, has eight goals after scoring 20 as a rookie last season.
But make no mistake — this is not a team designed to win now. When Colorado traded veteran Matt Duchene last month, it received young defenseman Samuel Girard, who has already made an impact on the Avs, plus a prospect, a college player and three high-round draft picks.
In fact, Colorado now owns nine picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts.
But that’s the future. For now, Avs coach Jared Bednar is preaching patience and praising his players even after defeat, as was the case after Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“There were some things that we did better than we did in the past three games,” Bednar told the media in Tampa Bay. “It’s a step forward. Now we’ve got to take another step.”
Colorado will try to take that step against a Panthers team that has been resilient this week, picking up three points (1-0-1) in two games despite the aforementioned injuries.
It remains to be seen how the Panthers fill the void at top-line center. But second-line center Vincent Trocheck, who leads the team with 12 goals and was an All-Star last season, is the prime candidate.
Trocheck said the obvious — that the Barkov injury badly hurts Florida’s attack — but he added that the team has the spirit to carry on without their top center.
“Guys have to step up,” Trocheck said. “We could have been a bit more disciplined (against Winnipeg).”
Trocheck’s “lack of discipline” comment referred to Florida getting whistled for seven penalties against Winnipeg. But the Panthers killed off six of those power plays.
Florida’s Micheal Haley, a fourth-line left winger, scored the tiebreaking goal on a deflection, and that is the type of contribution the Panthers will need up and down the lineup if they are to succeed without Barkov.
As for the goalies, the Panthers are expected to use James Reimer (5-6-3, 3.70 goals-against average, .892 save percentage).
Colorado will likely start Semyon Varlamov, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14 but has been injury-prone since. He is 8-7-1 this season with a 3.15 GAA and a .903 save percentage.