Panthers star Aleksander Barkov returns to lineup after reported bout of pneumonia

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

After spending more than two weeks battling an illness, Aleksander Barkov finally returned to the Florida Panthers’ lineup Thursday.

The star center missed the Panthers’ previous six games, including Florida’s entire five-game road trip, and seven of the last 10 with pneumonia, Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat reported.

Barkov’s return is crucial for the Panthers, who lost 5 of 7 without their captain in the lineup. Their next five games, including one against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday at FLA Live Arena, are in Florida and it’s another chance for the Panthers to climb back into the postseason picture after an underwhelming start to the year.

Florida, which won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, entered Thursday sitting three points out of playoff position and Barkov’s return helps “every piece of your game,” Paul Maurice said.

“Power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, faceoffs — all the things that he does,” the coach said. “He’s just not a great player. He’s an elite player at all those things.”

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Although his production has dipped slightly from last season, Barkov is still one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL and entered Thursday with 18 points in 19 games. He also played a starring role in perhaps the Panthers’ best win of the season last month against the Boston Bruins, notching three points in the upset victory.

The game came as Barkov was dealing with the early stages of the illness, too: Barkov sat out Florida’s loss the Dallas Stars the week prior due to his illness, and then missed practice two days later — the day after Thanksgiving — and didn’t suit up again until Thursday in Sunrise.

At one point, Barkov’s fever rose to 103 degrees, Ilta-Sanomat reported.

The Panthers originally hoped Barkov, 27, would be able to join the team at some point on their road trip, although he never got healthy enough to travel out west. He has, however, been skating alone behind the scenes, the newspaper reported, with an eye on returning once Florida got back home.

“We’ll be mindful,” Maurice said. “He hasn’t hit the ice much in the last while and he was not at his best even in a couple of those games. He came out of the lineup, came back in and then came back out, so it’ll take him a little while to get his rhythm, but he’s still going to be real good.”

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Center Anton Lundell, however, remained out due to an illness and goaltender Spencer Knight is also out sick.

Right wing Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Radko Gudas remained out with concussions, too.

With Knight out, the Panthers added Alex Lyon from AHL Charlotte to back up fellow goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The 29-year-old American has yet to appear in an NHL game this year.

Florida loaned rookie center Aleksi Heponiemi back to the Charlotte Checkers to make room for Lyon, as the Panthers, for the first time this year, are able to carry the maximum of 23 players.

After playing most of the early part of the season with the bare minimum of 20 players due to cap constraints, Florida now has the space available to carry more after placing Hornqvist on long-term injured reserve Monday.