The Florida Panthers are healthy — finally.
The Panthers are also at home, where they lead the NHL in wins (15-3-0).
Seems like the perfect time to play the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the team the Panthers are forever chasing in the state, in the Atlantic Division and in the NHL at large.
The Panthers, who scored three third-period goals to rally past the visiting New York Rangers 4-3 on Wednesday night, will be playing on short rest when the Lightning visit on Thursday.
Tampa Bay had the night off Wednesday after recording a 5-4 overtime win over the visiting Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night.
The Lightning won that game even though six players and coach Jon Cooper were unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol.
“I told our guys, huge credit to them for finding a way like we have done all year long,” Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said.
But while the Lightning are still struggling with COVID issues, the Panthers were at virtually full strength on Wednesday.
In fact, the Panthers were so flush with players that Frank Vatrano was a healthy scratch. Vatrano scored at least 16 goals in each of his past three seasons, with a high of 24 in 2018-19.
Meanwhile, Owen Tippett, Florida’s first-round pick in 2017, reportedly remains in COVID-19 protocol.
But for now at least, Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette has some tough lineup choices to make.
“To see the full team together, they’re going to have to push each other to stay in the lineup,” Brunette said. “The competition is healthy, and it’s fun to have those decisions.
“At the same time, those (players) give a lot. They have played so well. It’s hard to take guys out.”
The biggest news for Florida on Wednesday — besides the win — was the return of their captain, center Aleksander Barkov, who had missed 12 of the past 13 games due to a knee injury.
Florida has battled without Barkov this season, going 8-5-0. With him, however, the Panthers have been tough to beat, going 11-2-4.
Besides Barkov, the Panthers also got back bottom-six forward Mason Marchman, who had missed the past 17 games due to an upper-body injury.
Marchman had an assist on Wednesday. On a night when Florida stars Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were kept off the scoresheet, 10 Panthers had either a goal or assist.
That type of depth certainly has the attention of the Lightning, who have split two games with the Panthers this season. Both games were in Tampa Bay, and the Lightning’s win came in overtime, giving the Panthers three out of a possible four points in the series.
It’s unclear which goalies will be in net on Thursday.
The Lightning called up Max Lagace from Syracuse of the AHL on Monday, and he beat Montreal while making his first NHL appearance of the season. Tampa Bay’s top two goalies, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott, are in COVID protocol.
The Panthers, meanwhile, might go to rookie Spencer Knight in order to rest starter Sergei Bobrovsky, who started on Wednesday.
Knight, 20, beat Tampa Bay 4-1 on Oct. 19, making 30 saves in his first career appearance against the Lightning. He is 6-4-2 this season with a 3.42 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage.
Lagace, who turns 29 next month, is 8-8-1 with a 3.71 GAA and an .875 save percentage in his brief NHL career.
–Field Level Media