They’re in a foreign country, in a time zone seven hours ahead, in a country where there isn’t a palm tree to be found.
Sure, the Panthers have spent a week in Finland soaking up the culture and hospitality in and around Helsinki. But when they take to the ice this weekend at Hartwall Areena against the Blackhawks, the Panthers will be trying to lay the foundation for a quick start to the regular-season and a trip to the playoffs.
And make no mistake, a strong season and a trip to the playoffs is well within the Panthers grasp. In fact, it hasn’t been this close in nine years.
The Panthers head into the season with some of the top young players in the league, strength in goal, a rebuilt blue line, coach Peter DeBoer returning for his second season, and more depth than any time in franchise history thanks to management’s commitment to developing its young prospects.
Yes, it has taken patience. But the Panthers have finally arrived.
“I like our team,” said center Stephen Weiss
. “I think we’re going to be pesky, gritty, fast and uptempo. I have to think we’re going to be better when you look at the guys here. Everyone is getting better every year. I just think we have to get off to a better start than we have in the past.”
It’s something that’s been easier said than done in recent years.
The Panthers have been snakebit by slow starts, and its cost them, especially last year when they missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker to the Canadiens.
“Starting the year in Helsinki will be exciting,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “But we know the most important thing will be the four points on the line. Despite the distractions of playing overseas, despite the different environment, our number one priority is to pick up the points and start the season off the right way. I know everybody understands the importance of a good start. That was hammered home last season.”
And the ones before that.
The Panthers got off to a 4-5 start last October before losing four consecutive games to drop to 4-9. In 2007-08, there were 5-7 through October and in 2006-07 they went 5-9. The Panthers have also dropped their last two regular-season openers: 6-4 last year against the Hurricanes and 5-2 the previous year against the Rangers.
The Panthers open the season today with more depth than in franchise history and a number of changes. During the off-season, they solidfied their center position by acquiring playmaker Steve Reinprecht from Phoenix, an 11-year veteran who will center a line with Cory Stillman and Michael Frolik. With the addition on Reinprecht, Nathan Horton goes back to his natural wing and is reunited with ‘Sunrise Express’ linemates Stephen Weiss
and David Booth.
While the Panthers did lose All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the blue line, once an area of concern, now also has depth with the addition of former Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (career-high 30 points last season), Jordan Leopold, unrestricted free agent Ville Koistinen and rookie Dmitry Kulikov
“We’ve got different defenseman, different players, new guys excited to be here…it’s going to be a good year,” said two-time, Stanley Cup-winning forward Cory Stillman. “We have a team than can go hard and if you work hard every night, night in and night out, we’re going to susprise a lot of people.
“I imagine there are still some people picking us (to miss the playoffs). I think as players we have to use that as motivation and, obviously, prove people wrong.” NOTESStephen Weiss
, Bryan Allen, Jordan Leopold and Keith Ballard all did not practice today due to flu like symptoms. They are all expected to skate tomorrow and will be a game-time decision.