The Florida Panthers opened the 2017-18 campaign last night in Tampa, coming up on the short end of a 5-3 score against the Lightning. However, those numbers didn't tell the whole story of a well-played game, overall, by the boys from Sunrise. Here are some takeaways from the season opener and some thoughts as the Panthers delve into their 24th season.
Quality scoring chances
For the first time in recent memory, dating back at least two seasons, the Panthers visibly had a ton of prime scoring chances from in and around the slot and clearly outmatched the Lightning, a playoff favorite, in that regard. This is a testament to Bob Boughner's balancing of the lines, mixing speed and size advantageously. Save maybe one guy, there was a point in the game for every forward that made you go "wow." Even with the subpar play of Roberto Luongo, especially early, the Panthers had plenty of chances to win this game. It happens in hockey that the pucks just don't bounce your way and go in, but more often than not, when you hit posts, create breakaways and get more quality chances than the other side, you put yourself in a great position to come out on top.
Nick Bjugstad is back
He gave us exactly what we wanted to see from him. Played to size and used reach, making him very hard to knock off the puck. Tape to tape passing, he played a great distrubutory game. He even forechecked for quite possibly the first time ever. He looked like an even better version of his 2014 self. The subsiding of the sour taste in our mouths left over from the expansion draft when we protected the big contract of an underperforming Bjugstad over our top goal-scorer in Jonathan Marchessault will undoubtedly take more than one game, but the good news is that it has slowly begun to fade. If Bjugstad can build off of this game and stay healthy, he's primed for a huge bounce back season.
Jamie McGinn is McGood
Went to dirty areas, played physically and hard nosed and prolonged possessions, a sorely missed and overlooked part of Tom Rowe's "skill first" offense last year. He looked great as a skater, finding open space and staying upright. Plays as a great physical compliment to the skill center Vincent Trocheck and the puck-moving Radim Vrbata. As much as McGinn projects better as a third line grinder, he balances this line out well by bringing toughness and strength, the perfect situational fit for him as long as Bjugstad is redeeming himself and, with the chemistry both the second and third lines showed in this one, potentially beyond.
Mark Pysyk impresses
Stayed back on defense while also jumping up on offense, strong on his skates and flashy with his stick maneuvers, getting around defenders more like a bottom-six center. Potted a goal in that fashion on a greasy rebound from a Vrbata shot from the side of the net, on his backhand. Pysyk got caught a bit out of position on a PK that led to a Tampa Bay goal, but other than that, he played a smart defensive game and an alert offensive one.
3/5 needs to be split up
It's time for the front office to bite the bullet: Aaron Ekblad needs to go to the bottom pairing. Last season, Ekblad tried to play more of a finesse game which led to him chasing pucks in too deep and easily giving up contested pucks. This year, after an apparently grueling summer in the gym in which he shed a good ten pounds, Ekblad is trying to play more physically. It doesn't look good. Numerous times he was shoved to the ice by smaller competition or just caught completely out of position, allowing skill forwards to run past him. On the Lightning's second goal, Ekblad was the last line of defense. He had Palat lined up for a crunch into the side boards but instead turns his shoulder and winds up chasing Palat in deeper. Palat beats him, then he looks downright foolish trying to dive at a check which is easily shrugged off as Palat sets up the Lightning's second goal. As bad of a goal as it was for Luongo to allow from a bad angle, it never happens if Ekblad makes a pretty simple body-on-body play. Instead, he overthought the situation and was partly responsible for a goal against. He was on the ice for three Lightning goals and in the box for another. Ekblad is being paid like a number one defender now and he needs to play like it. It's undoubted after his Calder winning season that there is definite two-way potential in him. He just needs to find his balance again and it can't be done at the expense of the rest of the team while he plays against top line competition. He needs to be skating less total minutes and with the purely defensive defender, Ian McCoshen, who looked good in the art of staying back and being large in his own zone, on the bottom pairing.
Lu's time is coming
As much as it hurts to say, there's no getting around it: while components of the defense played negatively (Ekblad), this loss is very largely on Luongo. Simply put, those first two goals, the Palat backhander on a bouncing puck and the Point wrister from the side of the net, he as a starting goalie has to have. Per Luongo's own admission, he is no longer the starter on this team. As much as one game is just that, one game, Luongo played similarly to this at the end of last season. He's showing his age as he is slower and the five hole is becoming a very susceptible area. The Panthers can't get by giving James Reimer 60+ starts, so Luongo will get his time in net, but the team should skew time towards Reimer as Luongo gets closer to the golden years.