Jaromir Jagr said the biggest surprise of last season was Vincent Trocheck.
What Trocheck is doing now for the Panthers has become expected.
Trocheck drew much attention last season when he found a home centering Florida’s second line in December and ended up with a career-high 25 goals in a career-high 76 games.
On Thursday night, Trocheck was the hero of Florida’s 4-3 overtime victory over the visiting Devils by scoring twice. Trocheck’s first goal of the night gave the Panthers a 3-1 lead.
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Trocheck’s second goal was the overtime game-winner with 43 seconds remaining — not long after blocking a shot to help stave off the Devils — for his sixth tally of the season, tying him with Jonathan Marchessault for the team lead.
“He’s confident from last year,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “He plays with confidence every night, gets chances every night and is a real good player in this league.”
After breaking through and earning his spot in the Florida lineup last season, Trocheck has merely solidified his spot with a great start to this season.
“We expect that, and he expects it from himself,” said Gallant, who served as an assistant coach for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, a team Trocheck played on.
“He’s a great hockey player who has made terrific strides in the past year-and-a-half. He’s a guy we count on every night. I know what Vinny is made of. He’s going to do the right things for your team for the most part. He works hard, competes on every shift. He has skill, but he kills penalties and blocks shots, too. He plays a 200-foot game, and that’s important for us.”
Trocheck, 23, was rewarded for his big season last year. The Panthers made it clear how much they thought of him and his future standing with the team by signing him to a six-year, $28 million contract.
Unlike past seasons, there was no doubt Trocheck would not only make the team coming out of training camp but where he would play.
When Nick Bjugstad left the team because of migraines last December, Trocheck — who had been moving around from one line to another — slid in between Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, and the magic began. Trocheck not only had 25 goals and 53 points, but Smith and Jokinen flourished as well.
The trio combined for 68 goals and 163 points last season.
For the first time in his three seasons with the Panthers, Trocheck found consistent playing time and a role he was counted on to fill.
“We see how hard he works every day, so I can’t say what he’s doing is a surprise to us,” Shawn Thornton said.
“You see his skill-set in practice, and we really saw him take off last year. But with a big paycheck comes big expectations. There was some bad luck for someone else [Bjugstad], and that happens in every sport; look at Wally Pipp.
“That line, obviously, gelled from the start, and you couldn’t break it up. He took the ball and ran with it. He’s such a hard-working guy with a lot of character. I’m not surprised he’s having the success he is.”
This season, Trocheck’s line has been slowed with the absence of Jokinen with what is believed to be a knee sprain stemming from his participation at the World Cup with Finland.
Jokinen skated again Friday, and while he’s not expected to play Saturday at Washington he could be back in the lineup Monday night against the visiting Lightning.
“He’ll be early next week,” Gallant said. “If not the Tampa game, then right after that.”
▪ Bjugstad (hand) also skated Friday, but Gallant said his return might take longer than Jokinen.
Saturday: Panthers at Capitals
When/where: 7 p.m.; Verizon Center, Washington.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560; WMEN 640.
Series: Washington leads 62-47-9.
Scouting report: Roberto Luongo will be back in net for the Panthers as they try to win their second consecutive game in Washington. Last season’s 5-2 win at Verizon Center was Florida’s first there since 2010, snapping a 10-game losing streak. … The Capitals, who beat the Panthers 4-2 on Oct. 20, have won their past four games.