CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers are breathing a sigh of relief.
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, two-thirds of the team's incredibly dynamic top line, were both on the ice for practice on Friday at the Panthers IceDen. Huberdeau had been sidelined since Wednesday, while Barkov left last night's preseason loss to Tampa Bay in the first period.
"It was big," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said of seeing his teammates back on the ice. "You never want to see guys go down like that. They're tough cookies. It's good to see them."
Fresh off setting a single-season franchise record with 96 points (35 goals, 61 assists), Barkov has picked up right where he left off during the preseason. Producing at a point-per-game pace, the 24-year-old center has tallied five points (two goals, three assists) in five exhibition games.
Just behind Barkov in scoring last season was Huberdeau, who finished with career-highs in goals (30) and points (92), while also setting a single-season franchise record for assists (62). Appearing in two preseason games thus far, he's already registered two goals and two assists.
Joel Quenneville said that both players "looked good" during practice, but he'll be holding them --- as well as a handful of other veterans -- out of tomorrow's preseason finale in Tampa Bay.
"We're not playing them tomorrow, but they both certainly could play," the Panthers head coach said. "The progress from Huby was good, and Barky was back to his regular self. It was good."
While Huberdeau and Barkov are good to go, the same can't be said about Brett Connolly, who exited last night's game just 14 seconds into the third period after being on the receiving end of a clipping penalty. Quenneville said the winger's "doing not bad" and could miss roughly a week.
A Stanley Cup champion with Washington in 2018, Connolly joined Florida on a four-year deal this summer after setting career-highs in goals (22) and points (46) in 2018-19 with the Capitals.
"We'll see how he progresses," Quenneville said of Connolly, who had two preseason goals.
After wrapping up their preseason this weekend against the Lightning, the Panthers will return to Tampa Bay to open up their 2019-20 regular season on Oct. 3. After that, the cross-state rivals will face off for the fifth straight contest during Florida's home opener on Oct. 5 at BB&T Center.
"A lot of games in a row," Quenneville said. "It's kind of taken on like a playoff series. We'll see how it goes tomorrow. In the regular season when it counts, that's a different game."
In the battle for the backup goaltending job, Sam Montembeault is the last man standing.
"I'm really happy right now, but I can't take that for granted," said Montembeault, a third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. "I've got to work hard every day and prove that I belong here."
Although he entered camp as the favorite to land the job, Montembeault still had to go out and earn it - and boy did he ever. In three preseason appearances, the 22-year-old turned aside 90 of 95 shots for a .947 save percentage, including a 30-save shutout against the Dallas Stars.
"The opportunity was there, and he seized it," Quenneville said. "[Looking at] our goaltending throughout camp, every goaltender took something out of it where they gave themselves the best opportunity. He came in with a chance to get the job and he earned it the hard way by playing in some tough buildings and doing a great job. He's one of those guys that's well liked by his teammates. I think he gives a nice compliment to Bob [starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky]."
An AHL All-Star last season, Montembeault made his NHL debut and saw time in 11 games with the Panthers in 2018-19. During that stint, he registered a 4-3-2 record - including a four-game winning streak early on -- with a 3.05 goals-against average and .894 save percentage.
Montembeault plans to learn a lot from watching Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner.
"It was my first time backing him up yesterday," he said. "I looked a lot at his preparation during the game and even during warmups."
ACCIARI SETTING AN EXAMPLE
There was a moment during last night's game that perfectly summed up Noel Acciari.
After laying out to block a shot, the hard-nosed center was left visibly in pain. But, after taking just a few minutes to gather himself on the bench, he was right back on the ice dishing out hits.
In the end, he finished with four hits and four blocked shots in 12:24 of ice time.
"If I can still skate, I'm going to be out there," Acciari said. "Not much can really keep me off the ice. I just want to be out there with the guys and do whatever I can to help the team. If it was blocking that shot in the preseason, it's doing it for Bob, doing it for your D. Whatever it takes."
Possibly one of the best under-the-radar signings of the summer, Acciari inked a three-year deal with the Panthers on July 1. During his four previous seasons with the Boston, the 27-year-old registered 18 goals, 13 assists, 86 blocked shots and 505 hits in 180 regular-season contests.
A wizard in the faceoff dot, he also won 10 of 13 draws against the Lightning on Thursday.
"He plays exactly how we want to play," Quenneville said of Acciari, who is expected to begin the season as the team's fourth-line pivot and an important penalty killer. "His system is very representative of how we like to play… He brings the passion and grit that you appreciate."
ON THE RADIO
The Panthers Radio Network stations for the 2019-20 season were unveiled today.
All 82 games during the regular season can be found on the team's flagship station, Entercom South Florida's 560 The Joe. Additionally, games can also be heard on the following stations: Hubbard Radio's FOX Sports 640 South Florida (Palm Beach), Florida Keys Media's WCTH-FM Thunder Country 100.3 (Florida Keys), and iHeart Media's WAXE 1370/107.9 (Treasure Coast).
"We are excited to get the 2019-20 hockey season underway and give our fans the accessibility to listen to games from the Treasure Coast to the Florida Keys," Panthers Vice President of Broadcasting and Panthers Alumni Randy Moller said in a release. "The Panthers Radio Network is comprised of a lineup of stations that allow fans to catch Panthers hockey games and inside interviews with players, management, personalities and more."
For full station information, please visit FloridaPanthers.com/PanthersRadioNetwork.