GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Brandon Pirri couldn’t find a permanent spot with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he has made himself right at home with the Panthers.
Pirri has played in eight games since coming over from Chicago in a trade March 2, and has three goals and four assists.
In Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over San Jose, Pirri got the Panthers going by scoring Florida’s first goal before Quinton Howden knocked in his rebound for Florida’s second just 17 seconds later.
“It’s exciting here right now; we’re a good, young group,” Pirri said before Florida’s late game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on Thursday night.
“I think there’s a lot of talent here, and we’re trying to find our identity. It’s hard to explain, but this is a great opportunity. It’s a lot of fun being here. The guys have been great. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.”
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon continued to follow Pirri’s progress after taking him in the second round while the GM of the Blackhawks in 2009.
Pirri led the AHL in scoring with 22 goals and 75 points last season, and scored six goals with five assists in 28 games with the Blackhawks this season before landing in Florida.
“He’s grasping this; he comes from a good organization that he didn’t break into full time,” Panthers coach Peter Horachek said.
“This is a great opportunity for him, being with a lot of other young players who have a lot going for them. They all have parts of their game they need to improve. But they are relishing the opportunity.”
Said goalie Roberto Luongo: “He has a lot of skill, a good shot, great release. He’s been impressive since I’ve been here.”
Pirri has been a top-end scorer throughout his hockey life, but the Panthers would like to see him play better on the defensive end.
“We know Pirri can score; he led the American Hockey League in scoring, so that’s not in question,” assistant general manager Mike Santos said. “We want him to play a complete game, win faceoffs, play up against the bigger centers. Those are things which will decide whether he’s a real good NHL center or just someone who can score. But he has nine goals already. Give him credit for that.”
Pirri said he understands that and has been working on improving that side of his game. Since joining the Panthers, Pirri has been on the ice for only three opposing goals.
“It’s something I’ve worked at in my four years of playing pro, and it’s gotten better,” Pirri said.
“It still has a ways to go like anything else. The more responsible you are defensively, the more you’ll have the puck on your stick. You have opportunity in transition, stuff like that. To be able to do the fun stuff, you have to work on the other stuff.”
Horachek said Pirri’s defensive play is a work in progress and that the limited amount of games he has played with the Panthers is too small a window to judge.
“There has been improvement; his positioning is better,” Horachek said. “He’s understanding things more.”
Sean Bergenheim was back on the ice during Thursday’s morning skate but didn’t play for the fifth game in a row after sustaining an undisclosed lower-body injury March 11.
Bergenheim, Horachek said, could be back this weekend when the Panthers play back-to-back games in Southern California.
“I would say he’s 90, 95 percent, so he’s close,” Horachek said.
Horachek added that Jesse Winchester (lower body) continues to skate in South Florida and could join the team on the West Coast. “He’s looked really good,” Horachek said.
Winchester has been out since getting injured March 9.
• Rookie Aleksander Barkov and veteran Tomas Kopecky were both injured at the Olympics and haven’t played for the Panthers since before the break.
Horachek said both are close to returning to skating, but whether or not either plays again this season remains to be seen.
Barkov missed four games before the break with a knee strain — something he re-injured in Sochi, Russia. With only 12 games remaining, the Panthers might just let Barkov finish the season off the ice so he can come back strong for training camp.
“The question is, do we want him to come back?” Horachek said. “He’s a young guy who has that knee. We want to be sure.”
Kopecky sustained a concussion while playing for Slovakia and hasn’t been able to do much since.
• Former Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was named coach of Team Canada’s men’s Under-18 team for the 2014 World Championship. Gord Murphy will resume his role as an assistant coach under Dineen.
Dineen won gold in Sochi as coach of the Canadian national women’s team. Dineen, Murphy and Craig Ramsay were fired by the Panthers on Nov. 8.