The fine collection of young NHL talent displayed by the Panthers and Colorado on Friday at the BB&T Center likely won’t include Panthers rookie center and leading scorer Aleksander Barkov.
It will include Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and this season’s leading rookie scorer with 33 points. It will also include Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 overall pick in 2011, No. 2 on Colorado in scoring and Colorado’s captain despite being only 21 years old.
Leading the Avalanche in scoring is comparative old man Matt Duchene. Duchene turned 23 last week.
The Panthers counter with last year’s NHL Rookie of the Year, Jonathan Huberdeau, taken one spot in the 2011 draft after Landeskog. And they will throw out rookie center Nick Bjugstad, on a roll of points in five of his last six games.
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They also would counter with Barkov, but he wasn’t at practice Thursday two days after leaving Tuesday’s win at Buffalo with the mystical lower-body injury. Panthers coach Peter Horachek offered only that he had no update on Barkov. Horachek also doubted winger Tomas Kopecky would be back Friday.
Barkov’s absence means more ice time for Bjugstad, center Drew Shore (23 next week) and Jesse Winchester. Shore picked up his three points, all goals, in the last five games, but Horachek saw improvement in him earlier in the 11 games since Shore’s recall from San Antonio.
“Even in his first few games, he had some attention to detail, energy,” he said. “He’s a very good penalty killer, and he worked hard in all areas of the ice. He’s put in a couple of goals, obviously added to his positive feeling and confidence.”
Bjugstad thinks the major difference between the Panthers now and the Panthers that got Kevin Dineen fired as coach is, simply, confidence. Their winning streak in December, Bjugstad believes, convinced the team there’s enough talent in the locker room to win.
“That’s what it comes down to a lot of the time, no matter what you’re doing,” Bjugstad said. “Even if you’re the best player in the league, if you’re not confident at certain times, you’re not going to do anything. So if everyone’s confident on the team and confident we can win, buy into the systems, it’s a whole different mentality.”
The Panthers’ last two wins, in which Winchester had one goal and three assists, coincided with Winchester’s return from missing 14 games with an “upper body injury.”
“He works hard he takes pucks to the net, he’s not afraid to go to those hard areas,” Horachek said. “He pays attention to where he is on the ice in the system.”
Although acknowleding Winchester as a player who brings energy, he said, “I expect them all to be energy guys. That’s the fallacy. You say, ‘OK, the third- and fourth-line guys are supposed to work hard, and the other guys are supposed to skate around in circles.’ The skill guys have to work just as hard as the other guys.”