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Huberdeau shines in debut for Panthers in 5-1 win

by Alain Poupart /

SUNRISE, Fla.Jonathan Huberdeau had an NHL debut to remember.

The Florida Panthers' prized rookie admitted to being nervous before his first shift, but he was all smiles in a victorious locker room after flashing the skills that made him the third player chosen in the 2011 NHL Draft. Huberdeau had a goal and two assists, finished with a game-high five shots and earned First Star honors after leading the Panthers to a 5-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.

He did it all in front of his family at the BB&T Center after they drove all the way from Montreal to catch his big night.

"It's the best possible scenario," Huberdeau said while wearing a flashy red velvet hat, handed out by his teammates as recognition for his performance. "I'm happy with how things unfolded. It was my first game and I want to keep playing like this. It sure feels good to start my career with a game like that."

The line of Huberdeau, veteran Alex Kovalev and free agent pickup Peter Mueller combined for two goals and five assists.

Kovalev, signed after attending Panthers camp on a tryout basis, also had a goal and two assists, while Mueller had an assist.

"You've all heard a lot about Jonathan Huberdeau and I think you got a pretty good snapshot of his high-end skill set tonight," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "A coach always picks out little things that you can work on here, but that was a fairly impressive debut, to say the least. So we're really excited. It's great chemistry by those three and it was a great start for them."

It also was a big night for defenseman Brian Campbell, who scored two power-play goals in the first period, both on slap shots.

For one night at least, Campbell made his teammates and fans forget about the loss of Jason Garrison, whose booming shot from the point helped him score 16 goals for the Panthers last season before he left for Vancouver as a free agent.

"I'm definitely going to be texting him tonight, that's for sure," Campbell said with a smile. "It's fun. I know I've got to shoot the puck more. I didn't shoot the puck enough last year. When you've got options, I've got to be a threat out there, too, and then other things will open up and I'll be able to make some plays. My dad yells at me and I yell at myself and just keep talking about it. It was nice to get on the board."

Scottie Upshall also had a first-period power-play goal for the Panthers, who led 4-0 after the first 20 minutes, delighting the full house of 19,688.

It was a spectacular start for the Panthers, especially considering they were missing six players, all regulars on last season's Southeast Division championship team.

"(Injured forward) Kris Versteeg walked in about 35 minutes before the game and he said, 'It is a madhouse out there,' " Dineen said. "So that filters down. The players feel the buzz and, boy, what a turnout we had for the fans. Fortunately for us tonight, I think we put on a fairly entertaining show."

Jose Theodore made 41 saves for Florida. Patrick Dwyer scored for the Hurricanes, who are looking to get back to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

Cam Ward started in net for Carolina, but was pulled for Dan Ellis following the first period after allowing four goals on 12 shots.

"We wanted to change things up," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "It's the first game, we can let him battle through it. He was sick last week, we don't know if the energy was there. We put Ellis in there to give us a chance to get back into it."

The Hurricanes, who lost five of six against Florida last season, don't play again until Tuesday night when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning. Carolina had the better of play over the last two periods, but by then the damage had been done.

It didn't help that the Hurricanes finished 0 for 9 on the power play.

"We didn't come out as hard as we'd like," said center Jordan Staal, who was making his Carolina debut after coming over in a trade with Pittsburgh this summer. "It was a little bit of nerves coming out. They capitalized on our mistakes. When you're down 4-0, it's hard to come back.

"We had the juices flowing before the game and we were excited, but it was a few big mistakes early and that took the wind out of our sails."

The Panthers were opening at home for the first time since October 2006, when they had another memorable performance. That night, they beat the Boston Bruins 8-3.

After a pregame ceremony that included the unveiling of a banner commemorating the first division title in franchise history, Huberdeau scored Florida's first goal of the season at 3:51. He was standing in front of the net when he tapped in Mueller's perfect passout.

"I thought the defenseman was going to pick me up in front of the net," Huberdeau said. "He just left me alone. That's good for me because I scored because of that."

Campbell made it 2-0 at 6:42 after Carolina's Jiri Tlusty tried to move the puck past him at the blue line instead of simply clearing the zone. After stealing the puck, Campbell skated and beat Ward with a slap shot high to the glove side.

Campbell's second goal at 16:47 came with eight seconds remaining in a 5-on-3 advantage. Like the first, Campbell scored on a slap shot, but this one went high to the stick side.

It was the second two-goal game of Campbell's career. The defenseman also had two goals on Nov. 17, 2005 against Washington when he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

Upshall closed out the first-period scoring after a nifty play by Huberdeau. After taking a pass from Tomas Fleischmann just inside the Carolina blue line, Huberdeau deked past Tlusty before passing to the wing to Upshall, who one-timed it past Ward.

"I saw him look at me as he crossed the blue line and he made two moves to beat some guys and put it right where I like to shoot it," Upshall said. "It was just a case of letting him do his magic and me putting it on net."

Huberdeau also got the first assist on Kovalev's goal, which gave Florida a 5-0 lead 3:35 into the second period. Kovalev, back in the NHL after playing 22 games in the KHL last season, scored when he ricocheted a backhand from behind the net off Ellis' back and into the net.

"As a line, we've been pretty good in practice and we were concerned how we were going to do in games and so far we had a good start as a line," Kovalev said. "I'll take this game as a starting point and we'll start making adjustments. Everybody on our line played great and we'll take it to the next game and see what happens."

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