Yesterday's preseason doubleheader could not have featured two strikingly different games if they tried. The afternoon game was a minor league mucking and grinding affair while the evening game was pretty close to standard NHL action.
The afternoon game featured mostly bubble players, with a couple of NHL third-liners while the evening game was mostly NHL players with blue-chip prospects. The Panthers had a large number of their most well-known players out of the game and in the concourse signing autographs. Those players included Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Thomas Kopecky, Ed Jovanovski and Jose Theodore. The Predators were missing some of their high end talent as well, including Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Pekka RInne.
The Panthers were also using the games as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. They have a new head of production in place and it showed. The break music was more typical NHL fare including a lot of classic rock and some 70s funk and less the booty shaking dance club fare and nu metal that's been blasted at us the last few seasons. There were also some new "This day in NHL history" slides up in between some of the other bits. I hope these stick around. The rest of the non-game content were all recycled intro and break videos from last season. This is just about getting the kinks out of game day production, so we're not likely to see the new stuff until opening night. One sour note about game presentation was the new in-arena announcer. He is, I'm told, the "voice of the Hurricanes" and a local legend. Unfortunately, his style does not work for hockey. Grumbles were heard throughout the entire building about him. I still don't understand why Bill Murphy isn't in the booth anymore. Out of the six arenas I've seen NHL games in (eight if you count preseason games in AHL buildings), Murphy is the best PA announcer of the bunch. Mitch Phillips, who handled the duties last year, was good and word was he was in the building, so I don't know what the Panthers are doing here, but this guy doesn't work.
The arena redecoration is still in process as well, but from the looks of the completed parts, it's going to look fabulous when it's done. One end of the seats are almost finished and if you look from the far end all you see is Panthers colors: Red, Blue and Gold. No more of the washed out green of National Car Rental.
The afternoon game started off slow and was marked by a lot of hits, many near fights and a lot of grinding on the walls. A few players stood out. Many were the ones who should have stood out: NHL regulars like Colin Wilson for the Predators and Sean Bergenheim, Dmitry Kulikov and Matt Bradley for the Panthers. A few Panthers younger players looked good as well, particularly defensemen Alexander Petrovic and Keaton Ellerby. On the other side, Panthers defenseman Tyson Strachan was a disaster, making lots of bad plays, playing out of position and struggling to keep up. It was obvious Ellerby had tired of bailing his defense partner out by midway through the game and wasn't letting him near the puck if he could help it. While Strachan looks like he's destined for a quick cut, it was good to see Ellerby taking the role of the veteran here, bailing his more inexperienced partner out and attempting to get him to play better positionally during the game.
The Panthers lost the game 5-3. Panthers goals were from Greg Rallo, Dmitry Kulikov and Mark Cullen. Cullen's was a nice goal and the kid obviously has some good sense and can shoot, but he needs to work on his skating. He was noticeably slower than a lot of the guys out there and that needs to change for him to make it to the NHL. The goalies were Tyler Plante and Brian Foster, with Plante having the obvious edge between the two. Plante let in the first goal, while Foster let in 4 on 14 shots in the second half.
The evening game was a lot closer to regular NHL action with the teams still tweaking things, obviously so in the case of the Panthers. The power play started off a little rough, but better than last year, but with the numerous opportunities given them to practice it, it got steadier as the game wore on. The Cats took their share as well, giving the Preds two separate two-man advantages. At one point, coach Kevin Dineen had Gudbranson, Matthias and Jason Garrison out defending in a 5-on-3, which was interesting. I also saw Evgeni Dadonov out on the penalty kill, which is good news for him. If he's not going to make the second line, the coaching staff needs him to be able to kill penalties and be responsible defensively to make the third line.
The Panthers were on the winning end of the night game, taking it 4-3 on goals by Selleck, Huberdeau, Santorelli and Kennedy. All were good in the game, Kennedy taking third star and Huberdeau taking first with the goal and an assist. The two played on a line with David Booth and did a good job keeping up with him. Huberdeau is the real deal. The guy's already really good and he's going to be great. I've liked what I've seen from Selleck this camp as well. I've only ever heard about his toughness but he's got some skill to back it up. Other standouts were Brian Campbell (as expected), Mike Santorelli and Shawn Matthias. Matthias looks like he's toughened up a bit in the off-season and was hitting more and not getting knocked off the puck. Jack Skille also showed more skill to go with the grit he showed in his few games for the Cats last year.
Other notables in the game were both the power play, which needs some work but is already a lot better than last season and the third period performance. The Panthers came out down 3-2 and put together a solid period of hockey. The third was their best period. They rallied, took the lead and never looked like they were going to lose it. Scott Clemmensen looked shaky the first two periods, but was solid in the third. He maybe just needed to get those first couple in before settling in. Whatever it was, the coaching, the new players, it was a welcome change from the last 4 or 5 seasons of Panthers hockey.