Bryan McCabe lost 10 pounds after breaking his jaw during a game last month.
The Panthers have lost a whole lot more.
The loss of McCabe may not be the sole reason Florida has won just two of the 11 games its captain has missed, although his absence both on the off the ice cannot be understated.
McCabe, 35, had the wires holding his jaw closed removed. He can now talk, breathe and – most importantly to him -- eat things not blended, mashed or pureed. He thinks the weight he lost will quickly return. “I've been eating a lot,'' he said. “A lot.'' After skating Friday in Coral Springs, he hopes to be back in the lineup within the week.
The Panthers can only hope McCabe doesn't miss too many more games.
“One player, especially your captain, makes a big difference on a team like ours,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “There's lots of intangibles with him and he's a big part of our team.''
Despite all the losing, the Panthers are still very much alive in the playoff race, fighting for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference no one – save for the red-hot Sabres – seems to want. The Thrashers had been holding the eighth spot, but they had lost four straight and 11 of 13 going into Friday's game against the Rangers. Those losses helped division rival Carolina sneak into playoff position.
Coming into Friday's games, Carolina held a one point lead on Atlanta and a two point lead on Buffalo. The Panthers were six points back despite all of their recent losing.
“For all our screwing up, we're six points back with a game in hand,'' assistant general manager Mike Santos said. “We still have a chance.”
McCabe thinks he can help the Panthers find their winning ways once more. McCabe's final game – he missed just one shift after breaking his jaw on an errant puck during the first period – was a 3-2 overtime victory over New Jersey on Jan. 15. That was the last game in Florida's three-game winning streak that ended a few days later.
“Hopefully it's just another week. That's what I'm aiming for,'' McCabe said. “It's always hard to sit out no matter what kind of injury you have. I'm itching and as soon as I'm allowed, I'll be back. I just want to be back and part of this team, helping things out. This is crunch time. We have to pull some wins together.''
McCabe was playing solid at the time of his injury, assisting on goals in each of Florida's previous two victories. Off the ice, McCabe has shown that he was indeed the correct choice as the sixth captain in franchise history. He has been vocal as well as a leader by example. The Panthers will not forget the grit he showed in refusing to sit out despite his painful injury.
Oh yeah: McCabe was also playing with a broken finger.
“He's such a positive leader, always picking guys up when they are down,'' said 22-year-old rookie defenseman Keaton Ellerby. “He's our captain and our leader. He does things right on and off the ice. We all learn from him. He's the foundation of this team. We miss him when he's not there. He'll be a huge addition when he comes back.''
NO NEW DEALS
McCabe said that he wants to end his career with the Panthers, although his name has been thrown about as one the Panthers might move before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. The Panthers have a number of players with expiring contracts, and if the team doesn't look like a true contender for a playoff spot by then, a good number may be moved for future considerations.
Goalie Tomas Vokoun and the Panthers had brief talks regarding a contract extension last month, but the two sides haven't talked since. Santos said Friday that the team would not negotiate deals with any of its pending free agents until after the season. That will only fuel trade rumors as the deadline approaches.
Both Vokoun and McCabe can stay in South Florida if they want as both have no-movement clauses in their contracts. They would have to agree to a trade before Florida could make one happen.
“We haven't talked contract with anyone save for Vokoun and that was over a month ago,'' Santos said. “With all the veteran guys who are free agents, we're going to wait and evaluate after the season. I don't think it's necessary to talk about contracts right now. I would hope everyone in the room would want to come back especially with the way the culture is changing. This is becoming a desirable place to play.''
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was scheduled to have an MRI on his injured ankle on Friday after being hit point blank by a Buffalo shot during the second period of Thursday's 3-2 overtime loss. DeBoer said he doesn't think anything is broken, and hopes the bruising subsides in the coming days allowing Kulikov to play Sunday afternoon against the Sharks.
Winger Cory Stillman also practiced Friday and proclaimed himself likely to play Sunday. “I feel good,'' he said with a wide smile.
PANTHERS: OUT AND ABOUT IN BROWARD AND PALM BEACH
A number of Florida Panthers -- including Vokoun, Stephen Weiss and Radek Dvorak -- visited the Chris Evert Children’s Hospital in Fort Lauderdale on Friday. The players hung out with the kids in the hospital and also had an ice cream party and handed out Valentine's Day goodies.
On Friday night, Scott Clemmensen, Jason Garrison and Mike Santorelli will join Bill Lindsay and Bill Murphy at Duffy's at the Fountains in Plantation.
That event starts at 6 p.m., so if you're going, you better get.
-- On Saturday at 5 p.m., a number of Panthers are scheduled to visit local rinks.
-- Rostislav Olesz and Scott Timmins at Pines Ice Arena, 12425 Taft St., Pembroke Pines, 5 p.m.
-- Keaton Ellerby and Evgeny Dadonov at Palm Beach SkateZone, 8125 Lake Worth Road, Lake Worth
-- Chris Higgins and Mike Weaver at Palm Beach IceWorks, 1590 N. Florida Mango Road, West Palm Beach.