The Panthers are undefeated without Aleksander Barkov. Sam Bennett is making it possible.

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·4 min read
David Santiago
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  • Florida Panthers
    Florida Panthers
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  • Philadelphia Flyers
    Philadelphia Flyers
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  • Aleksander Barkov
    Aleksander Barkov
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  • Jonathan Huberdeau
    Jonathan Huberdeau
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Anthony Duclair
    Anthony Duclair
    Canadian ice hockey player
  • Aaron Ekblad
    Aaron Ekblad
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Aleksander Barkov won’t travel with the Florida Panthers for their one-game road trip to face the Washington Capitals on Friday and he’ll still be out at least another week or two, Andrew Brunette said Wednesday.

For the Panthers, missing their best player still hasn’t mattered. Florida is still undefeated without its superstar center in the lineup this year after beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, in overtime Wednesday in Sunrise.

“We just keep coming in waves,” star defenseman Aaron Ekblad said Wednesday.

It is a credit to the Panthers’ overall depth — each of their four most frequently used forward lines has a positive goal differential — and also to Barkov’s replacement. When Barkov hurt his left knee Nov. 16, Sam Bennett took his place at center on the top line and Florida (14-2-3) hasn’t missed a beat.

In three games since Bennett teamed up with wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair, the Panthers have outshot opponents 26-21 and outscored them 2-0 when their first line has been on the ice. They’ve generated six more scoring chances, one more high-danger chance and attempted 15 more shots, and Bennett has been the driving force with two goals, one assist and a team-leading 16 shots.

Bennett will get another chance to build on it Friday when Florida faces the Capitals (12-3-5) at 5 p.m. at Capital One Arena in Washington.

“He’s up for a challenge,” Brunette said. “He’s one of those guys that anything you give, he’s ready to go. He loves it.”

Barkov’s injury came early in the second period of a blowout win against the New York Islanders. The Panthers were already up by four goals and cruised to victory at FLA Live Arena. The injury appeared to be gruesome — Barkov took a knee-on-knee hit and his left leg bent awkwardly — but he has already skated multiple times since going down and will still be out “a week, two weeks, at least,” Brunette said.

“We want to make sure they’re 100-percent ready,” the interim coach said. “We don’t want to aggravate anything.”

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Florida elevated Bennett to the top line in the middle of the game and gave him the nod there again last Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. Although the new-look line lost the possession battle, the Panthers still won by three and the Huberdeau-Bennett-Duclair combination has improved in every game.

On Wednesday, the trio was dominant. Florida had a 16-3 edge in shot attempts, an 8-3 edge in shots on goal, an 11-3 edge in scoring chances and a 4-1 edge in high-danger chances when Huberdeau, Bennett and Duclair were on the ice for 5-on-5 action. Although the Panthers never scored at even strength, Bennett notched the game-tying goal on a third-period power play when he cut to the net and Duclair delivered him a perfect pass from the right wing to beat Flyers goaltender Martin Jones, then he tallied the secondary assist on the overtime winner when he won an offensive-zone faceoff to set up a nifty passing play from Ekblad and Huberdeau.

“Our team did a good job of sticking with it,” Bennett said Wednesday. “We kept grinding away.”

The two-point performance has Bennett up to 13 this season — he’s tied for third on the team after passing Barkov on Wednesday — and, at plus-13, he’s tied for the third best plus-minus on the team and 10th best in the league. He also leads Florida with three game-winning goals and has its only hat trick so far this season.

When the Panthers dealt for him ahead of the trade deadline in April last season, they were taking a low-risk, high-reward gamble on an underachieving former top-five pick. There was a chance he was going to be nothing more than a versatile, bottom-six forward, but there was also a chance he could finally capitalize on his massive potential and become Florida’s second-line center.

In 31 games since the trade, Bennett has scored the Panthers’ third most goals and his 27 points are as many or more than he scored in each of his last four seasons with the Calgary Flames.

“He’s been a force, for sure, in the faceoff dot, scoring goals. If you notice, he never loses a battle in the corner,” Ekblad said. “He’s unbelievable. He’s an awesome guy and a great addition to our team.”

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