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FINALLY: Panthers Open 2019-20 Season in Tampa Bay

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

10/3/19 Morning Skate

10/3/19 Morning Skate

Interviews with Head Coach Joel Quenneville, forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Anton Stralman

  • 02:00 •

Aleksander Barkov took a deep breath before greeting reporters on Thursday morning.

"Finally," the Florida Panthers captain said to assembled masses at AMALIE Arena.

After making headlines over the summer with massive moves such as the hiring of legendary head coach Joel Quenneville and the signing of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers will finally begin their highly-anticipated 2019-20 season tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"It's an exciting time," said Barkov, who led the Panthers in scoring with a franchise-record 96 points (35 goals, 61 assists) last season. "The first game of the season feels like a playoff game. Everybody's ready. It's everybody's first game. Everybody's excited. It's going to be fast-paced game with a lot of skill. The hardest working team is going to win… It's going to be fun."

Entering his first season behind Florida's bench, Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history with 890 regular-season wins to his credit, joined the Panthers in April after leading Chicago to an era of incredible success that included Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

"Every year it's a new challenge, a new group and a fresh start," Quenneville said. "We know [the Lightning] are a dangerous team. There's a lot of ability over there. We've got our own considerations and things we have to be prepared about… It's a whole new challenge for us."

The Panthers, who are hoping to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016, finished last season with a 36-32-14 record despite scoring a franchise-record 264 goals. Led by Barkov, the team's top line, which also features Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov, finished as one of the best three-man units in the league, combining for 258 points (93 goals, 165 assists).

Quenneville said early on in training camp that he expects that line to "lead the charge" once again on the offensive side of the puck this season. Picking up right where they left off, all three skaters shined in the preseason, teaming up for six goals and eight assists in three exhibitions.

"You're always excited for the first game," said Huberdeau, who scored a career-high 30 goals and set a franchise record with 61 assists last season. "It's been a while. We've been playing a couple exhibition games, and now we're ready to go. We've gotten better throughout camp."

Playing in their fourth straight game against Tampa Bay, the Panthers took two of three games from their cross-state rival to close out the preseason, including a 1-0 shootout win on Saturday. In that game, Bobrovsky stopped 26 shots and all three shootout attempts to pick up the victory.

Taking his talents to South Florida on a seven-year contract this summer, Bobrovsky registered a 37-24-1 record behind a 2.58 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and a league-best nine shutouts to help Columbus reach the playoffs as a wild card during the 2018-19 campaign.

Matched against the top-seeded Lightning, who finished last season with a league-leading 128 points in the standings to claim the Presidents' Trophy, the 31-year-old two-time Vezina Trophy winner surrendered just eight goals throughout the entire series to lead the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets to a shocking four-game sweep in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We've already put that behind us," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Our mindset is on this season… The guys in this room, we're focused on what we can control. That's going out tonight to start with, playing our game and focusing on the future. That's the bottom line. We can't change what happened in the past. It's a lesson learned for us. We've just got to look forward."

Tampa Bay led the league in scoring last season with 319 goals. Nikita Kucherov took home the Art Ross and Hart Trophies with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), while Steven Stamkos (45 goals, 53 assists) and Brayden Point (41 goals, 51 assists) also surpassed the 90-point mark.

While Bobrovsky is expected to get the start for the Panthers, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy will likely be between the pipes for the Lightning tonight. The 25-year-old went 39-10-4 with a 2.40 goal-against average, .925 save percentage and six shutouts last season.

In the preseason, Vasilevskiy went 0-1-1 against Florida, allowing 48 goals on 52 shots.

"I think we're all looking forward to getting started here," Quenneville said. "As camp's progressed, we've got a lot more familiar with our team, and we're getting a lot more familiar with Tampa as well. It's a chance to start fresh with a great game off the bat."

NOTES

-- Anton Stralman is expected to make his regular-season debut with the Panthers tonight after inking a three-year deal with the team on July 1. The 33-year-old defenseman had spent the previous five seasons with the Lightning, registering 29 goals and 101 assists in 355 games in that span.

-- Brett Connolly, who signed a four-year deal with the Panthers on July 1, is expected to make his regular-season debut with the club tonight. A Stanley Cup champion with Washington in 2018, the 27-year-old forward posted career highs in goals (22) and points (46) with the Capitals last season.

-- Frank Vatrano is entering the first season of a new three-year deal with the Panthers. The 25-year-old forward posted career-bests in goals (24), assists (15) and points (39) in 2018-19. Of the 24 goals he scored last season, 22 came at even-strength, which was tied for the team lead.

-- Aaron Ekblad is entering his sixth season with the Panthers. The 23-year-old blueliner tallied 13 goals, 24 assists, 88 blocked shots and a career-best 114 hits while seeing a team-high 1,938:49 of ice time last season. He has at least 10 goals in each of his first five NHL seasons.

-- Mike Hoffman is entering his second season with the Panthers after leading the team with 36 goals in 2018-19. The 29-year-old winger also led the team with 17 power-play goals, which was tied for fourth in the NHL. In 2018-19, he also reached a new career-high with 70 points.

-- Noel Acciari is expected to make his regular-season debut with the Panthers tonight after joining the team on a three-year deal on July 1. The 27-year-old center notched a career-high 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in his final season with Boston in 2018-19. Additionally, his 221 hits led the Bruins and ranked 12th in the NHL overall.

-- Evgenii Dadonov has registered 28 goals in each of the last two seasons with the Panthers after a five-year stint in Russia's KHL. In 2018-19, he also set a new career high with 70 points.

-- The Panthers ranked second on the power play (26.8 percent) and 10th on the penalty kill (81.3 percent) in 2018-19. On the man advantage, four different players reached the 30-point plateau, including a franchise-record 39 power-play points from defenseman Keith Yandle.

-- Dryden Hunt, Josh Brown and Henrik Borgstrom all are all expected to suit up for the Panthers and take the ice for their first Opening Night game of their NHL careers tonight.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Evgenii Dadonov

Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Brett Connolly

Frank Vatrano - Henrik Borgstrom - Denis Malgin

Dryden Hunt - Noel Acciari - Colton Sceviour

Defensemen

Mike Matheson - Aaron Ekblad

MacKenzie Weegar - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Josh Brown

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Sam Montembeault

Scratches: Mark Pysyk, Jayce Hawryluk

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Sept. 29: F Anthony Greco, F Owen Tippett, F Dominic Toninato and D Riley Stillman were loaned to AHL Springfield.

- Sept. 28: F Anthony Greco was recalled from AHL Springfield.

- Sept. 26: F Anthony Greco, D Ian McCoshen and G Chris Driedger were loaned to AHL Springfield.

- Sept. 25: F Troy Brouwer was released from his professional tryout.

- Sept. 23: D Ethan Prow, D Thomas Schemitsch and G Phillipe Desrosiers were loaned to AHL Springfield.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Thursday, Oct. 3, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: AMALIE Arena - Tampa, FL

TV: FSF Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)

Watch Party: Funky Buddha Brewery - Oakland Park, FL.

Stream: HERE

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