I think it's pretty safe to say that there hasn't been such a palpable sense of excitement surrounding the start of a Florida Panthers season. Coming off a previous offseason in which the team was nearly entirely rebuilt, then following that up with the club's first playoff appearance in over a decade, has set the fan's expectations higher than they've been in, well... awhile. This new season has been greeted with a glimmer of not only the same hope that existed last year, but alongside of that hope comes a level of confidence that the Panthers are not just a flash in the pan, despite what nearly every expert has predicted thus far.
Fast forward to Saturday night at the BB&T Center, as the final horn blew to end the third period of the Panthers' tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes. The home team, saluting the fans after a rousing and enjoyable 5-1 victory, have managed to erase some of the lockout's sour taste and restore that confidence and hope in all of the Cats fans who watched. The lockout is over, hockey's back, and so are the Panthers.
- While the Panthers won by a large margin, the effort wasn't without it's blemishes. It's early in the season, and both teams were sloppy and had timing issues. The Cats defense had particular issues at times clearing the zone and making good outlet passes. Granted, Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver and Erik Gudbranson did not play in this one, but no matter who is on the ice, that has to be policed.
- I remember typing this phrase a lot last year, and I have a feeling I'll be doing it again: Jose Theodore was excellent. Carolina threw 42 shots his way and the only goal allowed was due to some lazy backchecking by Tomas Fleischmann. The shot total was inflated due to lots of Canes powerplays, but Theo was there for them all.
- I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "second" line of Peter Mueller, Alex "Alexei" Kovalev and Jonathan Huberdeau. At least one of the three was involved in four of the Panthers five goals, with Huberdeau earning three points and the game's first star honor. If the Panthers can keep that line together, healthy, and rolling, as well as get Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim back, they have some serious depth in scoring, more than last season. This will certainly no longer be a one-line team.
- Huberdeau looks good. Really good. Yes, he disappeared a bit after the first period, but it was his first NHL game. His vision on the ice showed on the goal by Scottie Upshall, and his nose for the net on his tally to open the scoring. There's no question he'll need to bulk up further, but as he matures, he is going to be absolutely dangerous for the Panthers.
- Florida did a pretty admirable job in this one despite the absurd amount of injuries already plaguing the club. No Goc, no Bergenheim, no Gudbranson, no Weaver, no Kris Versteeg. Apparently, no problem. When all of these guys return, as well as Kulikov, the Panthers are very deep and should give Kevin Dineen tons of options.
- Am I the only one who thinks Cam Ward is really overrated? He's streakier than Marc-Andre Fleury's tighty whities, and I don't see how Carolina can justify his contract at times. That said, he's burned the Panthers in quite a few games over the years.
- An apology is one thing. Coming to play is another, Eric. Tsk tsk. The Panthers managed to shut down the four-headed offensive group of Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal, and newcomers Jordan Staal and Alex Semin. No small feat, although the Canes definitely looked out of sync at times. Again, it's early in the year, with basically no time to prepare. That group will come together eventually, and should create matchup nightmares for the Cats down the road.
- For more on the Carolina perspective, check out our "pals" at Canes Country.