When the playoffs come for the Florida Panthers — and despite losses in their past two games, with 89 points and nine games remaining, they’re coming — players who may not be household names may step into the light.
Florida has its share of current or rising stars, including Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Sasha Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad.
Yet it could be players such as Greg McKegg, Garrett Wilson, Steven Kampfer or Quinton Howden — who has been riding the bench lately — who play a bigger role once the playoffs start.
“It’s important for those guys to be a big part of your hockey club,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “If you don’t have those guys, your big guys will get wore out. Everyone has to play at this time of the year, you can’t just go with three lines. For us, we’ve called up guys and they’ve all played well. We’re very happy.”
Like many teams at this time of year, the Panthers are dealing with injuries to key players.
The absence of Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson has allowed defensemen Jakub Kindl and Kampfer to get extended playing time down the stretch.
The Panthers also called up McKegg from their minor league team in Portland, Maine, when Derek MacKenzie sustained a broken bone in his foot while blocking a shot.
“I’m just trying to contribute any way I can and it’s tough filling the shoes of a Derek MacKenzie,” said McKegg, who has played in 10 games with the Panthers this season, including four since MacKenzie was hurt.
“I’m just trying to help. I’m happy to have this opportunity and I’m trying as hard as I can.”
Wilson has been one of the Panthers most pleasant surprises. Although he doesn’t have a goal or assist in 24 games, Wilson seems to have become a favorite of Gallant for his tenacious defense and willingness to drive anyone on the ice into the boards.
“This is my favorite time of the year because it’s crunch time,” Wilson said. “It’s an honor to be here competing with these guys and helping them out. I know what my role is, know what they want me to do. I would like to chip in more offensively, but I think that will come. I’m definitely feeling the pressure and I’m putting it on myself. It’s frustrating to look at the stat sheet.”
A free agent at the end of the season, the Panthers don’t know whether Wilson will be back next season. He said he hopes to remain with the Panthers.
“I love it here, I’ve been here my whole career,” Wilson said. “They’ve treated me very well here. I would love to be here next year.”
Kampfer, who at 27 is one of the elder statesmen of the Florida role players, is in his second season with the Panthers and seems to be enjoying contributing as the playoff run continues.
For a few games earlier this month, Kampfer sat out because of a sore knee, but once Gudbranson went down after blocking a shot with his skate, Kampfer jumped back in and has been playing his best hockey of the season.
“I think the time off helped me get healthier, allowed me to do some maintenance stuff,” Kampfer said. “I was able to step back and see what I wasn’t doing well on the ice. You never want to sit out, but when you do, make it a positive.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Howden has been a healthy scratch in Florida’s past four games and six of the past seven.
Howden hasn’t played since his turnover deep in the Florida zone led to an Islanders’ goal in New York’s come-from-behind victory in Brooklyn last week.
“We have two extra forwards and right now, he’s an extra forward,” Gallant said. “Hopefully he plays really well when he gets his next opportunity. I like what Wilson has brought, he’s playing his fourth-line role well.”
▪ The Panthers have only faced five Eastern Conference franchises in the postseason during their history and three — the Rangers, Bruins and Penguins —currently hold playoff positions.
New Jersey, which the Panthers have faced twice in the playoffs, and Philadelphia are currently on the outside looking in.
▪ Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov briefly left Monday’s game in the third period after being struck in the throat by a shot from former teammate Dominic Moore. After being treated on the bench, Kulikov returned to the ice.
▪ The Panthers took Tuesday off and will hold a practice in Boston on Wednesday. Florida visits the Bruins on Thursday night at TD Garden.