The Florida Panthers’ practice on Sunday was brief, but there was a newfound energy as two key skaters joined the main group for the first time all season.
Defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, both still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, were full-go during the half-hour practice at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs and made themselves known — both by their actions and being their usual, vocal selves.
“Monty doesn’t shut up, which is a really good thing,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said with a smile after practice ended. “He’s in such great shape that no matter how tired he is, he can still chirp somebody on the other side of the ice, and that brings an energy level to your practice. And Aaron’s got a strong opinion on the ice about a good pass or a bad pass. It’s great. It brings intensity to your practice and then even in the simple drills they’re doing, both those guys get up the ice so fast and they’re sharp with the puck. It’s pretty good for sure.”
The two wore the red sweaters that defensemen normally wear but contact was minimal during the practice session. They will most likely wear the team’s gold non-contact sweaters moving forward for the near future when participating in full practice sessions.
That said, the two both still have a bit of waiting to do before returning to a game setting. The initial timeline for both returning was mid-December, but it looks like it might move up slightly — possibly being back by the end of November. Montour is about a week ahead of Ekblad, according to Maurice, just based on the fact that Montour had surgery a week before Ekblad.
Both will join the Panthers (4-3-0) on their upcoming three-game road trip that starts Monday against the Boston Bruins (7-0-1) and continues Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings (5-3-1) and Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks (3-5-0).
“They’re working hard,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said. “They want to get back. I’m sure it’s killing them to get back on the ice and being around the guys. There’s a long recovery for them. It’s always nice seeing them. They looked awesome today. I think they’ll be ready to go soon hopefully.”
The latest on Sam Bennett
Center Sam Bennett was the only player not on the ice for practice on Sunday, and Maurice said that was by design.
Bennett is in the final stages of working his way back from a lower-body injury sustained toward the end of the preseason. He returned to practice on Thursday, stayed off the ice on Friday, then participated in morning skate and did extra off-ice work on Saturday.
It’s possible he makes his season debut on Monday against the Bruins as the Panthers begin a three-game road trip.
“They pushed him real hard yesterday,” Maurice said. “We’ll see where he’s at [Monday]. If he feels good and he takes the morning skate, then we’ll make a decision. He’s at the tail end of his recover right now. We’re just trying to make sure we get this right, but at some point he’s gonna go in. There’s always risk. We’re trying to mitigate that at the same time. Maybe we’re trying to mitigate Sam Bennett here. He’s a pretty tough man. He played with a broken foot without telling anybody, so we just want to make sure we’ve got a handle on where he’s feeling before we put him in.”
When Bennett returns, he’ll slot into Florida’s second line with Verhaeghe and Matthew Tkachuk on the wings.
Matthew Tkachuk talks first goal
Speaking of Tkachuk, the Panthers’ star winger finally scored his first goal of the season on Saturday in Florida’ 3-2 win over the Seattle Kraken. He deflected in a long shot from Dmitry Kulikov to tie the game at 2-2 in the second period.
In his first seven seasons in the NHL, Tkachuk had always scored his first goal within the first four games of the season.
“To be honest, I’ve been all over it the six or seven games with chances and stuff so I knew it was coming,” said Tkachuk, who scored a career-high 40 goals last season, his first with the Panthers. “Just gotta keep shooting the puck and being around that net. That’s where I’m at my best. It’s nice to see one of those go in especially in a win, but I knew it was coming sooner rather than later with how much I was around it. Hopefully now the luck can change a little bit.”
Tkachuk leads the Panthers in shots on goal (32), scoring chances (35) and high-danger chances (26). His six assists are tied with Evan Rodrigues for the team lead.
“He understands his game,” Maurice said. “He is point-per-game with assists, which isn’t his normal rate, but he knew it was coming.”