In the 119 days since he last scored a goal, new Florida Panthers forward Frank Vatrano watched as a healthy scratch, labored with injuries, unsuccessfully filled a fourth-line role and was traded to a new team.
He struggled to adapt to his defensive responsibilities and restricted minutes in Boston, but he appears right at home with the Panthers. Vatrano scored a goal in his first game as a Panther, helping Florida to a 4-3 shootout victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday night.
The Panthers shipped a third-round pick to Boston for Vatrano on Feb. 22. He was previously sidelined by a high-ankle sprain and hadn't played since Feb. 6.
"I actually really liked him," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "For a guy that hasn't played in a while in a new team, new systems, he fit in really well on that line. A guy that you can tell his offensive instincts. He gets to where he needs to be to get the puck. He had some nice plays tonight."
In Boston, the Bruins deep forward corps forced Vatrano to a bottom-six role that didn't suit his offensive style. In Florida, Boughner entrusted him to play on the second line with franchise cornerstones Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck. He also gave Vatrano time on the second power-play unit. Vatrano was one of seven Panthers forwards to play in overtime.
"It feels nice, a team trades for you and puts that trust in you right away," Vatrano said. "It kind of gives you confidence early on in the game, knowing you can do what you do. You don't have to worry about playing defense all the time when you're in that role.
"For me, I was just going out there and making the plays when they were in front of me and not trying to be too high risk. When you go into a game knowing that the coach has trust in you, you can just go out there and play your game and not think about anything."
Vatrano finished by playing a career-high 19:05. He hadn't played more than 15 minutes in a regular-season game since last March. Vatrano also had five shots on goal.
"[My body] feels good," Vatrano said after the game. "I'm sure I'll be feeling it a little bit tomorrow."
Vatrano fits the Panthers well. His speed meshes with the style of play Florida wants and he brings forward depth to a group that was top-heavy with stars like Huberdeau, Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov.
He has a history of scoring in the AHL (39 goals in 43 games), but hasn't translated that to the NHL. This season, Vatrano scored just two goals in 25 games for the Bruins.
Huberdeau, Trocheck and Vatrano connected early in the game. Huberdeau hit the post on a shot set up by Vatrano's rush into the zone. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist robbed Vatrano on a one-timer from the slot. According to Natural Stat Trick, the line created eight scoring chances, including six high-danger ones.
"It was just a situation where we wanted to make sure that he felt comfortable and that they had a lot of puck possession with Troch and Huby because that's what he does best," Boughner said. "He looked like he fit right in."
Vatrano will also present a welcome conundrum for the Panthers soon. As Denis Malgin likely returns from a knee injury this week, Boughner will have to pick who plays on the second line. Malgin found success there since the All-Star break, but if Vatrano keeps playing well, he may hold on to his spot and bump Malgin down to the third line.
"It's nice to have a guy on my line that can move the puck quick, get in the zone with speed, open some space for me and Huby," Trocheck said.
The Panthers awarded Vatrano the postgame rugby ball, given to the player of the game. He said it was "pretty cool."
"Did a little Gronk spike," Vatrano said.
Pfalzer drops puck
The Panthers honored Olympic gold medalist and United States defenseman Emily Pfalzer before Saturday's game with a ceremonial puck drop. Pfalzer helped the U.S. beat Canada in the women's hockey gold medal game during last month's Winter Olympics. She is also dating Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson.
Typically, teams send out the captains for the ceremonial puck drop, but Matheson replaced captain Derek MacKenzie at center ice.
"It's awesome," Pfalzer said. "It's amazing to share this with Mike and the Florida Panthers organization, so it's pretty special."
Pfalzer had a plus-five rating in five Olympic games. She will return to the NWHL to play for the Buffalo Beauts.
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