For the first time in more than six months, Kris Versteeg will play in a regulated NHL game Thursday night. The opponent will be a familiar one.
Versteeg was sidelined after injuring his knee in a game against Tampa Bay on March 12. The Panthers’ front-line right winger, Versteeg has worked his way back and was medically cleared by Dr. John Uribe after a meeting Monday.
When Uribe signed off on Versteeg’s health Tuesday, Versteeg said he took of a photo of the clearance form and sent it to some family members.
“I actually get nervous before any kind of game, get those butterflies,” said Versteeg, who added he would be in Florida’s lineup Thursday night against the Lightning in Estero.
“After what I’ve been through in the months after surgery, this is icing on the cake. Being able to go out and play is easy because I know I’ve done everything I can to be strong.”
The rehabilitation process has been a long one for Versteeg. A few weeks after the surgery, he said he didn’t think he would be back with the Panthers until November at the earliest.
Then, he said, four months into rehab he saw hope he would be ready for the beginning of the season. Versteeg has been practicing with the Panthers since the start of camp.
Versteeg was a part of Florida’s top-scoring line when the team won the division championship in 2011-12 by scoring 23 goals with 31 assists. Versteeg was limited to 10 games last season because of a variety of injuries, including the knee injury that ended his season.
“Kris had a long six months,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “I think he’s coming back 100 percent.”
ACROSS THE ALLEY
Florida’s two NHL teams will meet in the middle Thursday night for a preseason game in Estero.
Germain Arena, located off Exit 123 on Interstate 75, will play host to the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. Home to the popular and successful Florida Everblades of the ECHL, Germain Arena seats more than 7,000 for hockey.
The arena is about a 90-minute drive from BB&T Center in Sunrise and about two hours south of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, with fans from that area driving in both directions for NHL games. On Thursday, it is being brought to them.
“It’s great,” Dineen said. “I love it there. It’s a great facility in a great part of Florida. They have a really strong hockey base there that [Carolina Hurricanes owner] Peter Karmanos has developed by having a quality minor-league team there. This is a good fit for both teams. I expect cheers on both sides.”Mike Mottau