CHICAGO – An hour before he took to the United Center ice for the first time as a visitor, Jack Skille methodically pushed away on a stationary bike, his head down low.
Skille had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled high. Skille wanted to focus on the task at hand and not play meet-and-greet in the busy hallway. Skille was a popular figure with the Chicago Blackhawks before being traded to the Panthers for Michael Frolik last month, and understandably, folks wanted to stop by and say hello.
One Chicago staffer noticed the seriousness on Skille's face and simply gave him a soft tap on the shoulder as he walked by.
Skille's name was the only one the Chicago fans cheered when the Panthers starting lineup was announced on Wednesday.
“To be honest, this was really awkward, being on the other side of things,'' Skille said after Florida's 4-0 loss to his former teammates. “There are a lot of good fans out there, saw some signs with my name on it and that was nice. It was nerve wracking at the start but I kind of got the hang of it as the game went on. I know how these fans are; they either love you or hate you. And they're very competitive. I was wondering how I would be received and they showed a lot of class. I commend them for that.''
With the Blackhawks, Skille was a grinder, the life of the locker room. In Florida, Skille sees opportunity to be something more and he's taking that role seriously. Skille can still crack wise with the best of them, but he sure isn't doing it as frequently.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon selected Skille in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2005 draft, so he obviously knows what kind of player he was getting when he traded the talented – yet slumping – Frolik to the Blackhawks. Tallon wants the Panthers to be bigger and meaner and stronger, and Skille – despite the smiles and the friendly banter – definitely brings some toughness.
While Skille had to be disappointed to leave the friendly confines of Chicago, the opportunity presented with the Panthers is something he craved. The Panthers wanted Skille – and he's ready to prove they were right.
“We're in a rebuilding process and we're learning the game better as a group,'' he said. “They believe in me here and hopefully they continue to believe in me. I have to cash in here soon but I'm not trying to put too much pressure on myself. In the role I'm playing, I have to step up. I can't let anyone else do it.''
-- Skille missed a month with a high ankle sprain suffered Feb. 23 in Ottawa, returning to the lineup Tuesday against the Rangers.
Center Shawn Matthias also returned to the lineup that night after missing two months with a broken ankle. Matthias had only gone through a few full practices with the Panthers before being thrown into game action. After Tuesday's game against the Rangers, Matthias definitely looked winded.
“I told them I was ready to go, so it's my responsibility to be in shape and be game ready,'' Matthias said. “I felt pretty good out there but it's been a while. The timing and stuff, that's going to come.''
-- Anyone who has ever questioned Stephen Weiss' importance to the Panthers only need to watch the team when he's not playing. Whenever Weiss is out, the Panthers offense goes into a deeper funk than usual. Weiss has missed the past two games with what is believed to be a nagging groin injury and didn't practice Thursday in Chicago. Weiss plans to take part in Friday's morning skate and will be a game-time decision in Buffalo. The Panthers can only hope he comes back soon.
Florida has not scored a goal in two-plus games since Weiss tied up the Islanders in the third period on Saturday night in Sunrise. Florida's drought stands at 2 hours 11 minutes 24 seconds of ice time.
“You can see his value to our lineup,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “That's obvious. The two games he's missed, well, yeah.''
FRIDAY: PANTHERS AT SABRES
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; HSBC Arena, Buffalo
TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM 560
The series: Sabres lead 39-24-3
The game: Buffalo has won two of its past three games as it makes a charge for a playoff berth. Florida has won two of the first three games in the season series, and the Panthers slumping offense may be looking forward to playing the Sabres. In two December wins, Florida erupted for 10 goals. Of course, that Panthers team was much different from the one taking the ice these days.
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Jack Skille Returns to Chicago, Wants to be Part of Panthers Turnaround ... Shawn Matthias Working Way Back