The Panthers left Fort Lauderdale on Monday afternoon for their latest road trip and did so with some new faces aboard their plane.
Not only were newcomers Seth Griffith and Dylan McIlrath heading out on the road with their new teammates for the first time, but veteran center Nick Bjugstad is traveling and close to making his season debut after fracturing a bone in his hand during the preseason.
“It has been tough watching because I spent a long summer training,” said Bjugstad, who has been cleared to practice but not to play in a game just yet.
“I was ready to get into some games. You have to take the positives from it. There have been some learning points watching the team play, have been able to be around the guys. It has been going a bit better as guys have gotten their feet wet. But we have the team. I’m ready to jump in and be a part of it.”
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Bjugstad has been out since being jammed up against a goal cage in an exhibition game at Dallas in September. On Monday morning, he worked as one of Florida’s spare forwards, but as he gets closer to a return, he is expected to become a big part of the Panthers’ rotation.
Coach Gerard Gallant said while Bjugstad will not play Tuesday in Montreal nor Thursday in Toronto, he could be back this weekend when the Panthers play a back-to-back set in Ottawa and New York against the Rangers.
“We’ll see how he gets along later in the week,” Gallant said. “He’s doing real well, but it won’t be [Tuesday] and it won’t be Toronto for sure.”
With Bjugstad returning in the coming days, Gallant is going to have to do some tinkering with his lineup.
Some roster moves made over the past week give Gallant some different options as well.
Derek MacKenzie didn’t participate in practice Monday allowing Griffith — claimed off waivers from Toronto on Saturday — time on Florida’s third line.
Griffith spent the past three seasons with the Bruins organization, getting into 37 NHL games with Boston since 2014-15. Griffith made his Toronto debut against the Panthers last month and hopes to get the opportunity forward Jonathan Marchessault has received since joining the Panthers.
Although pegged for a bottom-six assignment upon signing with the Panthers in July, Marchessault has filled in for the injured Jonathan Huberdeau on Florida’s top line and answered the call by leading the team with eight goals.
“There’s always pressure to perform and do well, but I’m just looking forward to the opportunity here,” said Griffith, who finished second in the American Hockey League with 77 points last season while a member of the Providence Bruins.
“I already feel comfortable out there at practice. Now, I’m just ready to get things started.”
FACEBOOK VIDEO: Florida coach Gerard Gallant speaks before road trip from One Panther Parkway
McIlrath is also settling in with the Panthers after being acquired from the Rangers in a deal for Steven Kampfer last week. Kampfer was a healthy scratch in 12 of 13 games as Florida’s seventh defenseman and McIlrath has met a similar fate in the two games he’s been with the Panthers.
After being waived by the Rangers and spending time in the minors, McIlrath says he’ll be ready when the Panthers call his number. McIlrath has, like Kampfer, played in just one NHL game so far this season.
“Obviously I was very excited although you never think about getting traded,” said McIlrath, who was the tenth overall pick of the 2010 Los Angeles draft in which Florida took defenseman Erik Gudbranson with the third pick.
“I kind of had a feeling something was going down because of the way things had been working out in New York. I’m very excited to be here. I’m ready to help wherever I can. When I get the chance, I’ll show them what I’ve got.”
▪ Kyle Rau says he wishes it didn’t take him so long to score his first NHL goal, but it sure came at a good time for the Panthers. Rau, playing in his 18th NHL game Saturday night, scored with 11:04 remaining in the third period to put the Panthers on the board in a game they were trailing 2-0 to the Islanders.
Florida would score twice in the third as Marchessault tied the score with 14 seconds remaining. Florida won it in overtime 3-2 on Denis Malgin’s third goal of the year.
“It’s a little bit of a relief after taking so long,” said Rau, who was recalled from AHL Springfield on Oct. 21. “You know what? I’ll take it. It sure was nice to see one go in, give me some confidence going out on the road.”
▪ Gallant said MacKenzie missed practice Monday because “he wasn’t feeling great” and expected him to be in the lineup Tuesday.
Tuesday: Panthers at Canadiens
▪ When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Bell Center, Montreal
▪ TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 WQAM; 640 WMEN.
▪ Series: Florida leads 41-40-6.
▪ Scouting report: As was the case last season, the Canadiens are off to a torrid start in winning 13 of their first 16 games in leading the Atlantic Division. Montreal, which is 10-0 at home, lost in regulation for just the second time on Sunday to the Blackhawks as former Florida backup goalie Al Montoya has started 3-2-1. Florida swept the season series last year for just the second time.