Panthers return from layoff to face Kings

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Timeouts are called when a coach senses momentum shifting away from his team ... at least that's normally the pattern.

Last week, after achieving a three-game win streak for the first team all season, the finally-healthy Florida Panthers had to put their skates away.

Except it wasn't interim coach Tom Rowe who called timeout - it was the National Hockey League's schedule, which gives every team a "bye week." And this was that time for Florida, which has not played since its 2-1 win over Anaheim last Friday.

On Thursday night, when the Los Angeles Kings (27-23-4) visit the BB&T Center, we will find out if the forced hiatus cooled off the Panthers (23-19-10).

It may help the Panthers that they are facing a struggling Kings team that is coming off consecutive 5-0 losses and has lost 18 of 30 road games this season.

"We have a lot of veterans who have not done much for us this year," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said in some harsh comments told to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. "It's disappointing."

Star Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who has been out since the season opener, is still nursing a groin injury. He is expected to return in three weeks.

The Kings open Thursday outside the playoffs -- same as the Panthers even though the teams are in opposite conferences.

"We're pretty concerned," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told the L.A. Times. "We should be playing desperate hockey right now."

The Panthers -- assuming five days off didn't make them complacent -- are in a much better frame of mind than the Kings.

Florida's two top forwards -- Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov -- came back from injury in the Panthers' last game before the break. And that is a huge break for the Panthers.

With Barkov and Huberdeau restored to Florida's top line along with the legendary Jaromir Jagr, that should help take pressure off the Panthers' other units.

"Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen feasted on mismatches created by the top line last year," wrote Justin Cuthbert for The Score in his analysis of what could happen now that the Big Three are back.

The Panthers (56 points) are four points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (60 points) with 30 games to go for each team. The Leafs are in third place in the Atlantic, which is the final guaranteed playoff berth within the division.

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins are in fourth place with 58 points, but they have played three more games than Florida and Toronto, putting them in a bad spot.

Boston is in so much trouble, in fact, that the Bruins fired coach Claude Julien on Tuesday.

On the West Coast, the Kings (58 points) trail the Calgary Flames (59) by one point for the eighth and final playoff berth. But the good news for Los Angeles is that the Kings have two games in hand on the Flames.

Peter Budaj (25-16-3) has done a solid job replacing Quick as the Kings' goalie. Budaj has a 2.09 goals-against average.

However, Sutter criticized him after Tuesday's 5-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But that's what happens when you lose, and the Kings are getting ripped left and right.

Kings center Jeff Carter, who leads the team in goals with 27 and in points with 47, has mostly escaped abuse. He has scored nine power-play goals and has nine game-winners, both team-highs.

But he will still need some help to cool off the Panthers ... unless the forced five-day hiatus took care of that already.