If there’s one player with the Panthers who knows what Sean Bergenheim is going through right now, it’s Kris Versteeg.
Bergenheim is expected to be back in the Panthers lineup for the first time since the 2012 playoffs when Florida plays host to Buffalo on Friday night. Bergenheim missed all of last season after needing a number of surgeries dealing with abdominal and hip injuries coming off that postseason run.
“I’ve had both surgeries that he’s had,’’ Versteeg said Thursday. “The thing he’s coming back from, and what [Jonathan] Huberdeau is coming back from is something that lingers. It’s about putting the pain, something that doesn’t feel right, behind them.
“Bergenheim plays a hard game, he’s always digging in. He has to come back when he feels it’s right. He has to be comfortable in his style.’’
Florida hopes to get the player Bergenheim was for them in 2011-12, a hard-nosed forward who has a knack for scoring timely, needed goals.
Because he hasn’t played an NHL game since April 26, 2012, perhaps expecting Bergenheim to be that type of player is asking a little too much.
The Panthers’ lasting memory of Bergenheim on the ice is one they would like to see moving forward. Bergenheim scored three goals in the seven-game series against the Devils.
Bergenheim was working on Florida’s fourth line at Thursday’s practice with Scott Gomez and Jesse Winchester.
“He’s had a good week of practice, and I think his mind’s in the right place, back on hockey,’’ said coach Kevin Dineen, who was critical of Bergenheim’s extended absence just last week.
“The last time we saw him, he was an extremely effective player for us. To get even more specific, he really changed the tempo of Game 7 here with his play in the third period. I know it was a long time ago, but I’d like to see him pick up where he left off as a Florida Panther.’’
Versteeg missed most of last season after needing major knee surgery and said after Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Blackhawks that was the best he felt since returning.
It has taken Versteeg a little time to feel comfortable doing the things he has grown accustomed to on the ice, although it appears the most physical part of his game is coming back.
“It was a matter of timing, getting used to one-on-one battles around the ice after not playing for a while,’’ Versteeg said.
“It had been a long time. I needed confidence because the mental side is such a big part of the game.
“I really felt good the last game out and was rewarded with more ice time. Being comfortable breeds confidence. I just need to keep going to those gritty areas that make me successful. This isn’t an overnight thing.’’
Dineen promises the Panthers aren’t overlooking the last-place Sabres despite how bad Buffalo has looked this season. Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the Bruins was Buffalo’s 10th loss in 11 games this season.
Entering Thursday, only Philadelphia had fewer points in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers’ lone win of the season came against the Panthers.
“We’ve prepared ourselves the same way,’’ Dineen said. “The emotional level has to be consistent. We can’t play at one tone for the Stanley Cup champions and then change it for someone else.’’
The Sabres aren’t just losing, they are losing ugly and getting players suspended for long stretches of time for dirty play. On Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the 10-game suspension on Patrick Kaleta for a hit on Columbus’ Jack Johnson on Oct. 10.
The NHL also gave Buffalo’s John Scott the option for an in-person hearing — meaning he’s getting five games or more for concussing Boston’s Loui Eriksson on Wednesday. The Sabres fired coach Lindy Ruff last season; now GM Darcy Regier is feeling the heat, at least externally.
“I don’t think I’m a dirty player," Scott told the Buffalo News on Thursday before the team headed south.
“I try to play within the code, within the rules. This is my first suspension. ... I was sick to my stomach last night knowing what happened watching the video. I just kind of regret the whole situation. I don’t want to be a dirty player.’’
• Goalie Scott Clemmensen was back with the Panthers on Thursday after being sent to AHL San Antonio last week.
Tim Thomas is out through this coming week after being hurt Tuesday against the Blackhawks. Dineen said Thomas wouldn’t practice Friday but could be back on the ice Saturday.