The Panthers packed their bags Wednesday morning.
After taking part in their final practice of training camp - after ending their three-day stay at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., by eating with cadets in the mess hall – the Panthers boarded a bus for New York City to began their quest for the playoffs.
Finally, after three weeks of practices, workouts and preseason games in Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Chicago and Atlanta – after wading through a swamp and hiking up hills around West Point - the games beginning Thursday will mean something.
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And they’ve never meant so much to the players or this franchise.
|Panthers netminder Tomas Vokoun who was acquired from Nashville in June. (Getty Images) |
After acquiring No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun over the off-season - after signing long-term deals with Stephen Weiss
, Bryan Allen and Nathan Horton and signing free agents Radek Dvorak, Brett McLean and Richard Zednik – expectations are high for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2000.
So the Panthers march to the promise land begins Thursday night when they open the 2007-08 season at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
GM and coach Jacques Martin believes it will be a good test.
“It should be a great game,” Martin said. “It’s always exciting to get that first game under your belt. You’ve been training as a group for 20 days so you’re kind of excited about playing a real game.”
For captain Olli Jokinen, it’s been a long time coming.
“We’re ready to play,” he said. “Madison Square Garden is a tough building to go and play, but I thinks it’s a good place to start the season. It’s a good crowd and it’s always fun to play Madison Square Garden.”
But fun for the Panthers will only come through winning. The team has spent several years nurturing first-round picks Stephen Weiss
, Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester, and each believes this is their time to help lead.
“I think we all kind of realize that it’s on us now,” Weiss told Panther Insider. “There’s no looking around at other guys to do the job. It’s our job to do.”
|Panthers forward Nathan Horton. Horton had career highs in goals, assists, and points last year (31-31-62. (Getty Images) |
Said Horton: “Forget the future. We are the now.”
“I will do whatever it takes for our team to make the playoffs this year,” Horton added. “Whatever it takes.”
Bouwmeester, who at 24 begins his fifth NHL season, thinks it’s only “a matter of winning.”
“Guys are getting older and ready to take more responsibility,” he said. “Really, there’s not a whole lot missing.”
For Thursday’s game at the Garden, Vokoun, 27-12-4 last year with Nashville, will make his regular-season debut for the Panthers as will defenseman Cory Murphy, who is expected to quarterback the power play after playing in Finland and Sweden the past six seasons.
Between Vokoun and backup Craig Anderson, and a deep blue line, defense for the Panthers is a strength. And there’s plenty of players capable of scoring.
The only glitch in tonight’s season-opener will be the absence of Zednik, who crashed into the boards at Tate Arena during Monday’s practice at West Point and hurt his shoulder.
Martin said Zednik will likely miss Thursday’s opener, but is day-to-day after that. Without Zednik in the lineup, Jokinen and Ville Peltonen could play with Jozef Stumpel while Weiss centers Horton and Rostislav Olesz and Gregory Campbell is paired with McLean and Dvorak.
Martin said he didn’t know whether he’d dress seven defensemen against the Rangers or call up a player from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
|Centers Chris Drury (l) and Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers |
Like the Panthers, much is expected from the Rangers, who bolstered a Jaromir Jagr-led offense with the addition of free agents Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.
“They obviously made some big changes,” said Jokinen of the Rangers. “They lost (Michael) Nylander, but they signed two of the biggest free agents this year.”
Panther GM and coach Jacques Martin said; “I think they’re counting on Drury and Gomez. I don’t know if it changes that hockey club if you look at it the last couple years. They’ve had success, basically, looking at two offensive lines and two lines that kind of bring energy and play a role.”
“They’ve been a team on the upside,” he added. “They’re one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.”
Drury and Jagr are expected to play with Martin Straka while Gomez is slated to play with Brendan Shanahan and Sean Avery.
After arriving Wednesday afternoon in New York, the Panthers held a team dinner before preparing for their season opener.