The Panthers were extremely happy to get Sasha Barkov back in the lineup Thursday.
Barkov, out the past few weeks after suffering a concussion in Detroit, scored twice — including the game-winner — in Florida’s 3-2 win over Arizona at BB&T Center.
“It’s always nice to be back, but it’s especially nice to be back with this team,’’ said Barkov, who scored his 18th goal of the season four minutes into the third to make it a 3-1 game.
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“There’s a great feeling in this locker room when we win these games. That’s why I want to be here.”
The win gave the Panthers something to feel good about as they closed a six-game homestand much better than which they started it.
Florida opened this run at home by losing to St. Louis and Nashville by a combined 10-3 on consecutive nights, but went 3-0-1 in the final four.
“This was must-win for us, no question about it,” Jaromir Jagr said. “We have a lot of tough teams coming up in a tight schedule. We have to keep winning because everyone else keep winning. That’s the way it is.”
The Panthers, who extended their lead on Tampa Bay and Detroit to five points, kick off a five-game trip Saturday in Columbus.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Barkov, whose team had to hold off a furious late charge by the Coyotes after Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored with 5:43 left.
“We have a lot of games in 10 days. We need to keep focusing on the next game.’’
Arizona, which has lost its past four and plays host to the Panthers next Saturday, took a 1-0 lead when Shane Doan threw a puck toward the net. The puck skipped across the ice and somehow hit goalie Roberto Luongo and bounded into the net.
The Panthers came back later in the period, tying things when Vincent Trocheck got his 19th of the year by whipping a shot past Louis Domingue with 7:56 left in the first.
Barkov made it 2-1 midway through the second as he and Logan Shaw muscled their way to the front of the net and jammed a loose puck through.
His third goal was much prettier as Jagr — whom the Panthers acquired a year ago Friday — fed Barkov from behind the net. Barkov crashed the net and hammered a shot from point blank range past Domingue.
“Barkov had a great game and we needed him,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was a funny game, a lot of whistles, a lot of dead play and it wasn’t a very exciting game. But we’re happy to get the two points.”
▪ Shawn Thornton had often joked this season would be his last, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Thornton, 38, signed a one-year contract extension Thursday after the idea was apparently brought up Monday at a team charity event.
Thornton, in his second season with Florida, played in 605 minor league games before getting a chance to be a full-time player with Anaheim in 2006.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion played in his 641st NHL game Thursday night.
“I’m just happy,” said Thornton, who was lauded by team management and teammates for his leadership and demeanor off the ice. “This has been a good day, a good week for me.”
Thornton is also believed to be behind the team’s ‘Spacey In Space’ sweatshirt which has become a social media phenomenon.
“I thought it was funny, I mean, we thought it was funny,’’ Thornton said. “I didn’t think it would be this big, didn’t think Kevin Spacey was going to jump on board. He’s been a big supporter of it and that’s pretty cool.’’
▪ Chicago acquiring Andrew Ladd from Winnipeg was the first big piece before the NHL’s trade deadline comes Monday at 3 p.m.
The Panthers were said to be in talks with Winnipeg for the veteran forward until Thursday morning. The Jets, one source said, asked for Florida’s first-round draft pick next year, as well as rookie defenseman Michael Matheson.
Florida’s interest in Arizona’s Mikkel Boedker doesn’t appear as strong as some media reports indicate. The Panthers are believed to be looking for scoring help on the wing, as well as perhaps defensive depth.