When the Panthers hit the ice for practice Wednesday morning, they did so with the largest compliment of players they have had in some time.
The return of captain Willie Mitchell and center Derek MacKenzie were a welcome sight for a Florida team battling one injury after another during the past few months.
MacKenzie, out with a suspected concussion the past week, is expected to return to the lineup Thursday against visiting Ottawa at BB&T Center.
Mitchell, also out with what is thought to be concussion-related issues, has been out since Jan. 18.
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Coach Gerard Gallant confirmed Wednesday that Mitchell — despite going through the full workout Wednesday — hasn’t been medically cleared to return.
By missing so much time, Mitchell is going to need some more conditioning.
“Willie have been out quite a while so he’s working hard and it was good to see him out there competing and battling in a full practice,’’ Gallant said. “It’s a good sign, but there’s no timetable for him. ... It’s not this weekend, for sure,. He’s been out a long time and needs conditioning. He’s day-to-day, we’ll see how he feels.’’
Although MacKenzie said he would speak publicly after Thursday’s morning skate, he did say he was feeling good and was happy to be back centering Florida’s fourth line in the practice.
The thought is MacKenzie likely could have returned Monday against Boston, but since he hadn’t skated much since leaving the team while it was in Winnipeg last week, he needed the extra time on the ice to be fully ready.
With MacKenzie working Wednesday, the Panthers had two extra forwards.
Teddy Purcell, working through what is believed to be a slight groin injury, is the only player not with a long-term injury (Dave Bolland) who didn’t practice. Purcell is out Thursday against the Senators.
“As long as everything feels good, [MacKenzie] should be back in the lineup,’’ Gallant said. “I’m not saying he’s in yet, I have to talk to the trainers. But he’s a real important player, a guy who stirs the drink.’’
The Panthers go into Thursday’s game needing a win after losing three consecutive games and five of the past six.
Florida, now in third place in the Atlantic Division yet just two points back of Boston and Tampa Bay, has 16 games remaining and is getting its full roster healthy at just the right time of year.
“Injuries are part of the game,’’ Roberto Luongo said. “Every team has them, every team deals with them. Good teams keep plugging away and we’ve done a pretty good job of dealing with it and now we have some guys coming back. That’s great for our team, but there will be more injuries as we head into the playoffs.’’
Said Vincent Trocheck: “Looking around the locker room, you see the full team back together before things got a little shaky. We know when we have a full team, we’re pretty good. Mitchell and MacKenzie are two pretty big pieces. The playoffs start right now, every point counts. We need them.’’
▪ Luongo is said to be back in net for the Panthers Thursday after being pulled after one period Monday against the Bruins.
Boston scored 34 seconds into the game off one of many defensive miscues the Panthers say they need to rectify moving forward.
The Bruins held a 4-1 lead going into the second but Florida clamped things down with Al Montoya in net, eventually forcing overtime in a 5-4 loss.
“We have to be ready at the start of a game, myself included,’’ Luongo said. “If there’s a breakdown, I have to make the save. We just have to get back to playing the way we did at the start of the season. ... I don’t want to deflect any blame. I have to be better, make some saves at key times and keep it to one or two goals there. It’s a team game; we all have to be better.’’
Thursday: Senators at Panthers
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WNMA 1210.
Series: Ottawa leads 47-32-3.
Scouting report: This is the fourth of five meetings between the two this season and the Panthers have taken two of three — although the Sens have points in two games. Ottawa has lost four of its past five.