Joel Quenneville said he could sense the excitement before even walking into the building.
As part of the annual Kraft Hockeyville celebration, the Florida Panthers will kick off a back-to-back set against the Montreal Canadiens at the K.C. Irving Regional Centre in Bathurst, New Brunswick, which is located roughly an hour away from this year's winning town of Renous.
In addition to the game, the town will host events such as NHL player and alumni visits, hockey clinics, and a pre-game fan festival. As this year's Kraft Hockeyville winner, which is now in its 13th season, the Tom Donovan Arena in Renous will also receive $250,000 worth of upgrades.
"When you pull in, all of the sudden you use the crowd out there and the kids and everybody excited about coming here today. Right away, it was a special feeling," said Quenneville, who's preparing for his first season behind Florida's bench after being hired in April. "Everybody's excited about what's here today. The guys are excited as well. We're looking forward to it."
The Panthers opened up their eight-game preseason on Wednesday with their annual split-squad doubleheader against the Predators in Nashville. While 40 of the team's players saw action over the course of those two games, the team's top-eight scorers in 2018-2019 sat out, including the dynamic trio of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.
After combining for 93 goals and 195 points last season - including a franchise-record 96 points from Barkov - those three forwards will all make their preseason debuts against the Canadiens.
"To be around those guys, they help me a lot," Barkov said. "I try to help them, too."
When training camp opened on Friday, Quenneville, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups before joining the Cats, said he wanted that line to "lead the charge" in 2019-20.
"Well know what he did with Chicago and with those guys," said Barkov, who set career-highs in goals (35) and assist (61) last season. "Hopefully he'll do the same thing with us. It's up to us. He's going to give us a system and everything that we need to do, but it's up to us. We need to take the next step. We've had a really good camp so far, a lot of pace. Everyone looks good."
Barkov, who hails from Finland, also said he was looking forward to the Hockeyville experience.
"It's Canada, so of course there's going to be a lot of excitement here. But I didn't know it was going to be that big," Barkov said. "Just pulling up in the bus here and seeing a lot of people waiting outside for us to come in, it's nice. It's nice to here. I'm thankful we get to see this part."
In addition to the top line, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forward Mike Hoffman will also make their preseason debuts. Last season, Ekblad recorded 13 goals and 37 points, while Hoffman racked up a career-high 70 points behind a team-leading and career-best 36 goals.
"We want to be a top team," Hoffman said. "You've obviously got to prove yourself and make some strides to get there, but I think we have the potential in the locker room. With [Sergei] Bobrovsky in net, it's going to help a lot. We picked up players that will add to our depth. The core here is outstanding. It's a good recipe. Now, it's up to us to go out there and do our thing."
Bobrovsky, who inked a seven-year deal with the Panthers during free agency this summer after winning a pair of Vezina Trophies (2013, 2017) with the Columbus Blue Jackets, will not make his long-awaited debut tonight, as Chris Driedger and Ryan Bednard will share the load in net.
In a three-way battle for the backup job behind Bobrovsky this season - a competition that also includes third-year pro Sam Montembeault - Driedger and Bednard both got off to good starts to the preseason. With each playing roughly half a game in Wednesday's doubleheader against the Predators, Driedger stopped 15 of 17 shots, while Bednard, a rookie, turned away 8 of 8.
Following tonight's matchup, the Panthers and Canadiens will head right back to Montreal on Thursday to wrap up their back-to-back at Bell Centre, where Florida won 5-2 last preseason.
"We've got a real good core of young players going to that next level," Quenneville said.
-- Roberto Luongo, who announced his retirement on June 26 after 19 NHL seasons, is on the ground in Bathurst to participate in some of the Hockeyville festivities. The 40-year-old played part of his junior career at the arena where tonight's game will be played, winning a QMJHL championship with Acadie-Bathurst in 1998-99. "I'm really happy to be here even though I'm not playing," said Luongo, who ranks first among Panthers goalies in games played (572), wins (230) and shutouts (38). "I know what kind of town we have here. The people love hockey."
PROJECTED LINEUP (UNCONFIRMED)
- Sept. 17: F Patrick Bajkov, F Blaine Byron, F Aleksi Heponiemi, F Jake Horton, F Cliff Pu, F Sebastian Repo, F Adam Rockwood, D Brady Keeper and D Will Lochead were loaned to AHL Springfield.
- Sept. 17: G Joseph Raaymakers was released from his professional tryout.
- Sept. 15: F Matt Marcinew, F Greg Meireles, F Liam Pecararo, F Matthew Wedman, D Gustav Bouramman and D Dylan MacPherson were loaned to AHL Springfield.
- Sept. 15: F Cole Schwindt, F Henrik Rybinski, D Vladislav Kolyachonok and D John Ludvig were returned to their junior clubs.
HOW TO WATCH
When: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 7:00 p.m.
Where: K.C. Irving Regional Centre - Bathurst, NB
TV: NHL Network (unavailable on DISH Network)
Radio: Stream HERE