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Players with Florida ties lead rejuvenated Coyotes against Panthers

Dec 29, 2022; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona Coyotes center Nick Bjugstad (17) celebrates a goal with teammates against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first period at Mullett Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three players are awaiting a homecoming on Tuesday night when their Arizona Coyotes visit the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla.

Coyotes forward Nick Bjugstad started his pro career with the Panthers. Fellow forward Lawson Crouse was a first-round pick by Florida. And defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was born and raised in Broward County, home of the Panthers.

All three of them are playing well. Crouse leads Arizona in goals (14), Gostisbehere is second on the Coyotes in points (26) and Bjugstad is tied with Gostisbehere for third on the team in goals (nine).

“Lawson is playing unreal right now,” Coyotes center Jack McBain said of Crouse, who has five points in his past three games.

Florida selected Crouse, 25, No. 11 overall in 2015. However, he was traded to Arizona for a pair of draft choices just one year later before he could make his NHL debut.

Bjugstad, 30, was Florida’s first-round pick in 2010, selected No. 19 overall. He played his first 6 1/2 NHL seasons with the Panthers, and the Coyotes are his fourth NHL squad.

Gostisbehere has never played for the Panthers, but he is a key reason why the Coyotes are playing better lately, including three wins in their past four games.

The other key factor is center Clayton Keller, who leads the team in assists (21) and points (34).

Arizona’s top goalie is Karel Vejmelka, who is 11-10-4 with a .907 save percentage and a 3.16 goals-against average. He has improved from last season’s rookie year, when he went 13-32-3 with an .898 save percentage and a 3.68 GAA.

The Coyotes, who are in rebuilding mode after finishing last in the Western Conference in 2021-2022, have 31 points in 35 games. Florida, which had the best regular-season record in the NHL in 2021-2022, has just 36 points in 38 games.

The teams, though, entered this season with much different expectations, and for the Panthers, there is a definite sense of disappointment.

Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers left the Panthers eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. While there are 44 games remaining, Florida winger Nick Cousins acknowledged some degree of urgency.

“I think everyone knows where we are in the standings,” Cousins said.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice, upset with his team’s two-game losing streak, wasn’t any more upbeat in his postgame talk with the media.

Asked about his power play — just 1-for-10 in the past two games — Maurice said he will use his second unit first at the next opportunity.

Panthers forward Sam Bennett ended a 13-game-goal drought with a tally against the Rangers.

“I’ve been playing solid hockey lately,” Bennett said. “I’ve been getting chances. When you’re not getting chances is when you worry.”

The Panthers, though, are just 1-5-0 in their past six games. They haven’t won consecutive games since Dec. 1-3.

Asked about the Panthers’ status in the playoff race, Bennett said, “Every game is a must-win. We’re not taking any game lightly.”

Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have split goalie duties for the Panthers. Bobrovsky is 8-12-1 with an .894 save percentage and a 3.32 GAA. Knight is 8-6-3 with a .907 save percentage and a 3.00 GAA.

–Field Level Media