Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers' big names cope with being benched

The Panthers’ side of the press box in Toronto on Thursday night had a little bit of star power going for it.

That was not the desired intent.

Coach Peter Horachek is finding it difficult to get a number of his top players out of their funks. On Thursday, Tomas Fleischmann — Florida’s leading scorer the past two seasons — found himself a healthy scratch for the first time since joining the Panthers in 2011.

Horachek said Fleischmann would return to the lineup on Saturday against the Blue Jackets.

“The only thing you can take away from players is their [playing] time,’’ Horachek said. “They want to play more, play more situations. ... I want them to care more about their team than themselves. We need to work hard and feel the pressure.. There’s nothing worse, for me, is to sit out a game, sit upstairs and have to answer why you’re not playing.’’

Jonathan Huberdeau, the reigning rookie of the year, started Friday’s practice by having a long talk with Horachek.

He will not, however, be benched despite having one goal in his past 22 games.

“I was just reaffirming the work that needs to be done,’’ Horachek said. “There are frustrations in his mind. He wants to have success, be successful. A lot of times, that relates to goals and assists. To me, it’s the work. I want him to take his skill set and work faster. The goals will follow.’’

Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who was the third overall pick of the 2010 draft, has sat the past three games.

The Panthers are struggling all over the ice these days with Florida surrendering six goals in each of its past two losses. Those losses, lopsided defeats in Boston and Toronto, came after Florida won three consecutive road games.

For Gudbranson, getting back to his physical style of play has been tough since he took a puck to the face in Winnipeg last month. Gudbranson had surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone and has been forced to wear a steel cage since returning Jan. 6.

The cage is definitely restrictive — Gudbranson’s line of sight is diminished so he finds himself skating with his head down more often — so it has been replaced.

Gudbranson has been working out with a clear shield lately, something that offers better sight lines. When he returns is unknown. Gudbranson has been out since Dylan Olsen came back from injury.

“Erik needs to improve his game and knows he is part of our future,’’ Horachek said. “This is part of the process for all young players. I think the cage affected him. ... He’s a big part of us moving forward.’’

Barkov’s status

Rookie Aleksander Barkov rejoined the team on Friday and took part in the optional skate. Barkov has missed the past four games since sustaining what is believed to be a knee strain in Buffalo last week.

Horachek said he doesn’t think Barkov — tied for the team lead with 24 points — will be back Saturday. Horachek said Barkov has been cleared medically.

“It’s much better playing,’’ Barkov said, “than watching the games.’’

Revisiting Columbus

Saturday’s game is Florida’s first in Columbus since 2012. The Panthers haven’t won there since 2007.

Nathan Horton, Columbus’ biggest free agent acquisition, returned Jan. 2 from a shoulder injury and has four goals and three assists in his 14 games since returning. The former first-round pick of the Panthers won the Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011.

The Blue Jackets have won 10 of 14 with Horton in the lineup and came into Friday’s action holding the final playoff spot from the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division.

Columbus, which moved over to the Eastern Conference after spending its first 12 seasons in the West, has made the playoffs once in franchise history.

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