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COVID-19 interrupted Huberdeau's career year with Panthers. Can he do it 4 months later?

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 7/16/2020 By David Wilson, Miami Herald
a hockey game in the snow: The Florida Panthers' Jonathan Huberdeau (11) controls the puck in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs bench as Toronto's John Tavares (91) closes in during the third period at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. © DAVID SANTIAGO/Miami Herald/TNS The Florida Panthers' Jonathan Huberdeau (11) controls the puck in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs bench as Toronto's John Tavares (91) closes in during the third period at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.

In the final days and weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shut down the regular season, Jonathan Huberdeau was mired in a rare scoring slump.

He was the Florida Panthers’ lone All-Star this season largely because of his consistency playing with Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers’ productive top line.

Until February began, Huberdeau hadn’t had a point-less streak longer than two games. As February ended and bled into March, Huberdeau crashed into a four-game points drought.

Joel Quenneville’s solution, perhaps paradoxically, was to split up the dynamic pairing of Huberdeau and Barkov. The coach sent his star left wing down to the second line and Florida promptly flipped a four-game losing streak into a two-game winning streak heading into the coronavirus shutdown.

“It doesn’t matter points,” Huberdeau said. “It’s just to work hard. I want to help my team, obviously, offensively.”

Huberdeau scored one goal in those last two games he played with winger Mike Hoffman and forward Erik Haula, who had been with the Panthers for less than three weeks when the virus outbreak sent the season into an unexpected four-month hiatus.

The shuffling lines meant an overhaul in Florida’s identity. No longer were the Panthers content with just trying to outscore teams with one of the NHL’s best offenses.

Quenneville wanted a more complete two-way identity to support struggling superstar goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. This strategy, however, hinges on the scoring punch Florida’s top-end talent has the ability to provide.

Barkov was well-established as a star before this season. He was an All-Star in 2018, and his NHL peers regularly listed him among the league’s most complete players, most underrated stars and top forwards.

Huberdeau, 27, was long the center’s wingman, but he solidified himself as a star in his own right this season, leading the Panthers with 78 points and 55 assists, and ranking third with 23 goals.

Three days into postseason training camp at the Florida Panthers IceDen, Quenneville has largely kept intact the lines Florida used at the end of the regular season, which means Huberdeau is poised to anchor the second line when it begins the qualifying round against the New York Islanders next month in Toronto following a July 29 exhibition against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“When we finished in St. Louis, it was going well and if you’re thinking about the team, the team was playing well with these combinations and Barky’s line with Frankie (Vatrano) was going well,” Huberdeau said. “We’re trying to get our chemistry back and we still have some time until the first game.”

The biggest challenge is getting to know Haula. The forward joined the Panthers in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes in February and quickly wound up as the center paired with Florida’s most productive winger as part of the so-called “Triple H” line. In their first game playing together, Haula had the primary assist on Huberdeau’s goal.

“I’m still getting to know the guys,” Haula said Tuesday. “It’s a little different. I’m taking it one day at a time and just having fun with it.”

Huberdeau’s other challenge is the one facing every single hockey player around the league: How can anyone be expected to not miss a beat when he couldn’t skate for three months?

Huberdeau spent his break back home in Canada, where he lives in a condominium. He didn’t have any home gymnasium, and he didn’t have the luxury of training in the warm South Florida weather of March and April.

He ordered a couple machines to do squats in his condo and eventually he was able to work out alone at a friend’s gym once COVID cases got under control in Quebec. Skills training, however, was virtually nonexistent until he got a few chances to use a rink before he came back down to Coral Springs for training camp.

The next two weeks will be a sprint to get ready. If the Panthers want to make an unlikely run at the Stanley Cup, their stars like Huberdeau will have to be at their best.

“Obviously, it’s good to be back with the guys on the ice and we’ve been waiting a long time and had the chance to rest a lot, work out, get stronger and now it feels like another season, but we’ll go right to the playoffs,” Huberdeau said. “We’re really excited and the first few days have been great.”

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