When Nick Bjugstad went out with migraines in December, the Panthers slid Vincent Trocheck into that slot and haven’t looked back.
Trocheck and line partners Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith clicked from the start, the three combining for 68 goals and 163 points last season.
With Jonathan Huberdeau knocked off the top line because of injury, the Panthers came into the season with one unchanged line — the Trocheck trio.
The three come into Thursday night’s game against the Washington Capitals (7:30 p.m./FSFL) with two goals from Trocheck and a combined five points.
“Last year we got used to each other,” Trocheck said. “We got on a roll. Once you have chemistry with linemates, it’s hard to play with anyone else. You know their tendencies. Jokinen is such a smart player, Smith is so skilled; those two guys make it easy.”
Through the first three games of the year, it appears Trocheck has simply picked up where he left off.
Trocheck had a breakout year, scoring 25 goals as he not only became a regular but a counted on top-six forward in centering Smith and Jokinen.
For Jokinen, a player who had been moved throughout the lineup in his first year with the Panthers, being able to stick with the same linemates has brought a sense of comfort and regularity.
“I bounced around on every line and it was nice to find a home,” Jokinen said. “You feel comfortable when you get to play with guys you have chemistry with. I feel like I can now really use my strengths to help this team because we’re all making each other better. I make them better; they make me better.”
Like Trocheck, Smith had a big year for the Panthers last year with a career-high 25 goals.
The three really seemed to hit it off, their styles complementing one another.
Although Smith and Jokinen played well with Bjugstad — who came back to center than line when Trocheck was hurt last year — it just seemed to blossom when they were all together.
“It seemed like [the chemistry] came along quickly although looking back, I don’t remember the first game,” Smith said.
“But I feel like we felt it right from the start. They are both easy guys to play with, that makes it good. We’ve had some good plays this year, but we haven’t found the back of the net as we would have liked. It has been a slower start than we would have liked, but the plays have been there.”
FACEBOOK VIDEO BELOW: Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant meets the media following Thursday’s morning skate via One Panther Parkway
The Panthers lost Trocheck to an ankle injury at the end of the year after blocking a shot against the Leafs.
The injury cost Trocheck the final weeks of the regular season as well as the start of Florida’s opening round series against the Islanders.
“It was the absolute worst possible time to get hurt,” Trocheck said Thursday.
“Any hockey player, any athlete has that competitive nature and you hate to be on the sidelines. I was miserable. I knew it wasn’t a good injury, knew it would take some time. When they told me it would be five, six weeks, the first thing I thought was ‘I hope these guys can get us to the second round.’ I worked as hard as I could to get back.”
And he did, coming back weeks before doctors figured.
Trocheck made his return for Game 5 despite not being completely healed.
The plan was for Trocheck to play sparingly, see how he felt.
With the game going two overtimes, Trocheck logged a whopping 30 minutes of play.
“They’re playing well, working hard,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said of the Trocheck line.
“That’s a good line you can put out there in any situation. That’s what I like about that line; they work hard and compete hard. They play a 200-foot game for us.”
▪ Roberto Luongo will be back in the cage Thursday against the visiting Capitals after getting Tuesday off.
With James Reimer signed, the Panthers plan on getting Luongo much more rest than in the past.
Luongo will battle the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby; in three games between the two last season, neither Luongo nor Holtby played.
“To have success, you have to have two good goaltenders,” Gallant said. “Luongo isn’t a young kid anymore, he can’t play 75 games for you. Reimer is a real good goalie, to me, a No. 1 goalie as well.”
▪ Shawn Thornton and Steven Kampfer are expected to be the healthy scratches Thursday.
Aside from switching out goalies Tuesday, Florida has rolled out the same lineup for all four of its games so far.