Coaches aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but Peter Horachek admitted he might have one.
“I really like the way Sean Bergenheim is playing,’’ he said after the Panthers’ 4-1 win over Montreal on Sunday. “He’s become one of my favorite players. The way he plays is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He just barrels in there and makes things happen all the time.’’
The Panthers sure did miss having Bergenheim around not only during last year’s lockout-shortened season, but early this year as well.
Bergenheim was subjected to a series of surgeries related to his abdomen, groin and hip area discovered after a short stint playing in his native Finland during the lockout.
Bergenheim missed all of last season but was paid after winning a medical grievance against the Panthers as he successfully showed his injuries were sustained while playing in Florida.
He missed the first three weeks of the season as he continued to recover from his surgeries, although, at some points, some wondered when exactly he would return.
Former coach Kevin Dineen publicly questioned Bergenheim’s resolve as he grew frustrated with the delay in returning to the lineup. Bergenheim at one point left the team to work with a physical therapist in Toronto to help speed up his return.
“I’m worried about the guy first as his coach, and I worry about him as a player,’’ Dineen said then. “It’s been an extremely long time off.’’
For Bergenheim, it was definitely a dark time. When he returned, he admitted he wasn’t always 100 percent.
“In the beginning of the season, the first 10 games, you can basically forget,’’ he said Monday. “My skating wasn’t there, but it got a little bit better. I still have a ways to go, still feel my first few steps could be stronger. But I’ve come a long way. The training staff has been great. It’s only going to get better.’’
In the past 16 games, however, Bergenheim has looked like his old self as he has quietly scored eight goals during that time. On Sunday, his empty-net goal sealed Florida’s win. He has four goals in the past three games as he looks extremely comfortable playing alongside rookie Aleksander Barkov and veteran Brad Boyes.
That trio has created numerous scoring chances for the Panthers over the past few weeks. Since Dec. 10, Florida has won six of nine with those three combining for 10 goals and nine assists.
“Once I get healthy, I’m going to be a better player than I was before,’’ Bergenheim said. “That’s what I’m working at. When you don’t play for a year and come back ... you missed out on the fun. There’s a new hunger, a new joy for playing again.’’
The Panthers were the beneficiary of goals being waved off by the officials Sunday as Montreal scored twice but had them reversed.
The first goal came when Brian Gionta was said to have hit the puck with a high stick. Gionta said he never touched it.
The second disallowed goal came after Alex Galchenyuk plowed into Clemmensen. It looked like Galchenyuk was shoved into Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen, drawing the ire of Montreal coach Michel Therrien even though Clemmensen clearly had no shot of making a play after being hit.
“I think it’s a good call,’’ Clemmensen said. “I was in the crease and the guy came up behind me and pushed me out. He didn’t mean to.’’
• Former Panthers captain Bryan McCabe will participate in the Winter Classic alumni game Tuesday pitting former members of the Maple Leafs against Red Wings alums.
McCabe is currently working in the Panthers’ front office.
“I haven’t skated at all,’’ McCabe said at Florida’s game in Toronto earlier this month. “This should be interesting.’’
A total of six former Panthers are expected to play in the game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Former Panthers Dino Ciccarelli, Igor Larionov, Jason Woolley and Mike Vernon will be back with the Red Wings; McCabe and Gary Roberts again represent the Leafs.