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After Long, Exciting Offseason, Panthers Itching for Opening Night

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - With their own season opener not getting underway until tomorrow in Tampa Bay, the Florida Panthers plan to spend the majority of their Wednesday night much like the rest of us - glued to the television watching the NHL's 2019-20 Opening Night slate of games.

"We've got four games going now," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's for keeps. We were talking that the regular season now is almost like the playoffs. It's going to be intense. I'm sure right off the bat you're going to see a different level of speed than we saw in preseason."

While there are several games to choose from tonight, most players say they'll be tuned into the matchup between St. Louis and Washington, which is set for 8 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network. The Blues enter the season as defending Stanley Cup champs, while the Capitals won in 2018.

For the Panthers, it's a chance to watch two teams with recent success they hope to replicate.

"I've missed hockey," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said after today's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "I grew up a fan and I never stopped being a fan. I love watching the games, watching the guys and learning from what they're doing. I'm excited to watch hockey tonight."

A popular pick to return to the playoffs this season, the Panthers have spent the past two weeks building chemistry and learning Quenneville's system. Hired back in April, Quenneville arrived in South Florida with not only the second-most victories in NHL history (890), but also four Stanley Cup rings, including three as a head coach with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015).

In addition to bringing in Quenneville to handle everything behind the bench, the Panthers also made several key pickups during free agency. Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman were brought in to add some skill and playoff experience to the lineup, while goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, will be taking over as the club's latest star in net.

"I think everyone's excited," Matheson said. "We've had a long offseason, way too long. This is a day that we've all been thinking of since the season ended last year, through all of summer and training camp. Even in training camp you start feeling like you're practicing every day and are itching to start the season, especially with all the changes that happened in the offseason."

With all of those major offseason moves, there's a noticeable amount of hype, both internal and external, surrounding the Panthers going into what could be their most-anticipated season yet. That being said, players are ready to stop talking about predictions and just start playing.

"We've been talking a lot about how talk is pretty cheap," Matheson said. "Up until now all we've been able to do is talk. Now, come tomorrow, it's time to start putting our words into action."

Opening up their season against last year's Presidents' Trophy winners, the Cats will have an opportunity to make a big statement against the Lightning on Thursday night at AMALIE Arena.

Closing out the preseason with three straight games against the Bolts, the Panthers took two of three contests, including a 1-0 shootout win on the road in the preseason finale on Saturday.

"Obviously we've got a lot of hype out there," said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, whose 92 points trailed only Aleksander Barkov (96) on the team's scoring list last season. "It's really exciting to get going. I think to get things going with all the guys, it's going to be our first game with the whole team together. I'm really excited. We've got to be ready to go tomorrow night."

Huberdeau said the team plans to celebrate the start of the season with a dinner tonight.

"Tonight, we're going to have a good dinner all together and just get ready for tomorrow," he said. "We've been waiting for this day, and I think now it's there. We've got to give it all right there. Every game's going to be important. We need to focus on Tampa. We know they have a good team, but if we work hard, have a good pace and play simple, it should be a fun game."

FIRST TIMERS

The Panthers unveiled their Opening Night roster this afternoon.

Of the 22 players that were listed, Henrik Borgstrom, Dryden Hunt, Jayce Hawryluk, Josh Brown and Sam Montembeault had never previously made an NHL team coming out of training camp.

"It's exciting," said Borgstrom, who had 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists in 50 games as a rookie last season. "I didn't make it out of camp last year, so this is the first time ever for me."

A credit to Florida's development system, all five players spent time in the AHL in 2018-19.

"It gives you more confidence, for sure," said Borgstrom, the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft.

TERRITORY TALK

It's time for the season preview edition of the Territory Talk podcast! Released earlier today, this week's episode features a good 10-minute chat with Panthers superstar captain Aleksander Barkov and some fun predictions for the 2019-20 campaign.

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