The Florida Panthers had it rough on Wednesday night.
Not only did Florida lose 3-2 in a shootout to the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center, but top-line center Sasha Barkov left in the second period with an undisclosed injury and did not return to the game.
General manager and interim coach Tom Rowe offered little information on Barkov’s status, only finally being pressured into categorizing it as a “lower-body” injury.
“We’ll know more [Thursday],” said Rowe, adding that Florida called up Michael Sgarbossa — who has 19 games of NHL experience — from its AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachussetts.
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“He’s day-to-day, we’ll see what comes out of it [Thursday].”
As far as replacing Barkov, Rowe made it clear: “You don’t. It’s tough; he’s a great player, one of the best — if not the best — two-way centers in the league for his age group. It’s a hard one to replace.”
Vincent Trocheck, who tied the score early in the third, said Barkov’s value flies under the radar because he plays in such a non-traditional market.
The 21-year-old center has been turning heads around hockey for years.
“If he was anywhere else, if he was in Toronto or any big city where hockey is the focal point, you would be seeing a lot more of him,” Trocheck said.
“He is the glue to this team. When he is not in the lineup, it’s an enormous chunk missing. ... Losing him is like losing [Sidney] Crosby in Pittsburgh.”
Florida’s five-game Atlantic Division homestand ends Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, and Wednesday’s loss makes the Panthers just 1-1-2 in a run at home they hoped would help their playoff standing.
Instead, the Panthers might go into the New Year closer to last place in the Eastern Conference than a playoff slot.
Florida came into the night closer to last place (three points in front of New Jersey) in the Eastern Conference than to Boston for third place (four points back) in the Atlantic.
On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs beat the Panthers for the third time this season, albeit by a smaller margin than the 6-1 rout in Toronto last month.
Florida went into the third period down 2-0 but quickly evened things up.
Just 29 seconds into the third, Jonathan Marchessault knocked down a long shot from Keith Yandle, gathered in the puck and put it into the back of the net for his team-leading 11th of the season.
A few minutes later, Trocheck swooped in and beat four Toronto defensemen and scored to make it a 2-2 game at 2:43 of the period.
Florida’s best chance to break the tie came when Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen stopped Denis Malgin on a penalty shot.
Toronto took its first lead on yet another Auston Matthews goal after the Panthers failed to cash in on a pair of early power plays courtesy of a pair of stick penalties on Frederik Gauthier.
Matthews, the Arizona-raised phenom who was the top pick in last June’s draft, knocked down a shot from Connor Brown while working inside on Roberto Luongo, reached out and swept the puck past the Florida goalie midway through the first.
The goal was Matthews’ 17th of his rookie campaign and first against Florida.
Florida came close to tying it midway through the second, but Barkov was stopped on a slick glove save by Andersen on the Panthers’ third power-play chance of the night.
Toronto had a goal taken off the board when James Van Riemsdyk’s wrister was waved off after a Rowe challenge in which video showed Nazem Kadri clearly interfering with Luongo.
The Leafs got the goal back moments later on a 4-on-4 chance when William Nylander roofed a shot over Luongo’s shoulder.
Florida has won just four of its past 14 games.
“We have to address the start we had,” Derek MacKenzie said. “We have to get our feet early, and we were a step off for a little bit.”
Said Trocheck: “It’s like a broken record; we need to play the full 60 minutes. There were some positives; we battled back, had confidence we would come back and had a great third period.”
▪ Although Jonathan Huberdeau is out of a cast and is skating and working out, he’s not expected to return from Achilles’ tendon surgery for the next few months, Rowe said.
Huberdeau was injured in Florida’s final exhibition game at the U.S. Military Academy against the Devils and had surgery soon afterward. Rowe said Huberdeau is on track to return by mid-February.
Defenseman Alex Petrovic, out since mid-November with an ankle injury, is out for the next month.
▪ TV analyst Steve Goldstein is getting to cover a bonus game this season. He will serve as a sideline reporter for NBC Radio’s coverage of the Winter Classic on Monday between the Blackhawks and Blues at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.
Goldstein plans to call Florida’s New Year’s Eve game in Dallas on Saturday and fly to St. Louis the following day.
THURSDAY: CANADIENS AT PANTHERS
▪ When, where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
▪ TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 WQAM, 640 WMEN, 990 WMYM.
▪ Series: Florida leads 42-30-6.
▪ Scouting report: The Canadiens lost their final two games heading into the holiday break and played at Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. Florida won the only other meeting this season 4-3 in overtime on Nov. 15 after Aaron Ekblad beat Carey Price on a shot with a broken stick. The Panthers went 4-0 against the Canadiens last season.