Last year, there was no player in the NHL better than Jonathan Huberdeau, and the Florida Panthers desperately needed him.
They were without Aleksander Barkov, who hasn’t played since the middle of November. They were missing Anthony Duclair, who hasn’t played since before Thanksgiving, and Gustav Forsling went on injured reserve last weekend. The Panthers’ top line was ravaged by injuries and their defensive depth was dinged, and Huberdeau could feel some of the urgency, especially since Florida trailed in all three of its games last week in Sunrise.
“Yeah,” he agreed, then cracked a joke. “I don’t think we felt the urgency in the first period.”
Huberdeau and his teammates have plenty of reasons to feel good these days. The Panthers (17-4-3) have the best record in the NHL and take a three game winning streak with them on the road for a three-game trip, which begins Tuesday at 8 p.m. against the St. Louis Blues at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. Florida has won six of eight since Barkov went down with a left knee injury and has taken sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. Huberdeau has been perhaps the single biggest reason for it all and his nine points last week led the league to make him the NHL’s first star of the week.
Those three injured Panthers could all be back as soon as Tuesday, too. Barkov Duclair and Forsling were all full participants in practice Monday in Coral Springs, and Barkov skated on a top line with wingers Carter Verhaeghe and Maxim Mamin at the Florida Panthers IceDen.
Even if Barkov can’t go against the Blues (12-8-4) on Tuesday, Andrew Brunette is optimistic he will be back by Friday, when Florida continues its road trip against the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Barky could be Tuesday or Friday at the latest,” the interim coach said. “We’ll see how he made out here at practice, seemed to look OK, but obviously we want to be cautious with him.”
Whenever Barkov and Co. return, Florida is optimistic its already potent offense can reach yet another level.
While Forsling has been out, Lucas Carlsson has seemingly established himself as a lineup fixture — the Panthers placed fellow defenseman Kevin Connaughton on waivers Monday — and another offensive weapon at the blue line. While Duclair has been out, Mamin has gotten an opportunity and the Russian forward scored two goals Saturday in the Panthers’ 4-3, shootout win against St. Louis.
Huberdeau, with one of the best weeks of his career, anchored Florida’s top line with Barkov sidelined and is once again playing at an All-Star level, tied for third in assists and fifth in points, while accounting for the 14th-most goals created in the entire league.
“We’re the top line, now Barky gets back...” the left wing said, trailing off to create a gap for laughter from the rest of the room, then he got back to serious mode. “It’s great to see. Obviously, he’s our best player and captain.”
It was another look at a strikingly different side of Huberdeau.
No one seemed more miserable about the Panthers’ first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs than Huberdeau, and it was understandable: Huberdeau, 28, has been in Florida longer than anyone and still hasn’t won a postseason series. He has moped and been agitated, but he also has taken the lack of success personally, especially as the Panthers have built a Cup-contending roster around him, Barkov and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Huberdeau has responded by playing more physically this year, getting into more scraps and tussles, and playing at his best when Florida has run into adversity. The Panthers trailed in the third period of all three of their wins last week, and could have easily faded and not gotten any points out of them. Instead, Huberdeau had two points in the third period of a three-goal comeback Tuesday, four points in the second half of a three-goal comeback Thursday and one point Saturday to help Florida erase a trio of one-goal deficits at FLA Live Arena.
“He’s taking on a responsibility that this is his team,” Brunette said. “He got a taste of success last year and I think he’s really taken this upon himself. It’s fun to watch him turn into the player and the leader that he is.”