"It's really important for us," Ekblad said of tonight's game, the first in a back-to-back set. "We want to get off to a good start to the season, and 1-2 isn't going to cut it. We want to be a more consistent team and have a better start. We're going to be flying around [in Buffalo] … We want to come out fast. We want to force them to play in their zone and just take care of business."
The Panthers (1-2-0) are coming off a 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night in Sunrise. After falling into a 4-0 hole in the first period, Florida showed a lot of fight over the final 40 minutes, outshooting (40-21) and outscoring (3-2) the Hurricanes to keep the game close.
"We obviously weren't happy with the game," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought the last 40 minutes was OK, basically how we have to play from start to finish. Starts, definitely, you put yourself in position to control the game. I thought were on the receiving end too much."
Quenneville said he expects the Panthers to come out stronger tonight.
"We gave up a couple of goals [against Carolina] that were preventable," he said. "I think those are the type of things that as a team we want to make the opposition earn their goals and possession as well. I think offensively we can have the puck more. We want to establish that right off the bat."
Looking for a better start, Quenneville is making key lineup changes on both sides of the puck.
On defense, MacKenzie Weegar is sliding up from the second pairing to the top pairing to play alongside Ekblad. This new-look pairing isn't one we've seen much of, as the two blueliners spent only 26:46 on the ice together at 5-on-5 last season, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
Weegar scored his first goal of the season in Tuesday's loss to Carolina.
"I think he gives some puck movement, some in off the rush, off the point," Quenneville said of Weegar, who is in his third season with Florida. "I think he's defended well. He's given us some quickness. I like when our D is active. He's really done a lot of that. He's involved in our attack."
Up front, Mike Hoffman is moving up to the top line to play with the dynamic duo of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Off to a hot start, he currently leads Florida in points (four goals, two assists), including a hat trick in Saturday's 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In 2018-19, his first season with the Panthers, Hoffman scored a team-leading 36 goals.
"I think Hoff's gotten off to a real good start," Quenneville said. "Trying to move it around to get balance… There's some offense in all the groups, but we need the top group to have the puck more and play in the offensive zone a little bit more."
The Sabres (3-0-1) have gotten off to a very hot start and currently reside in first place in the Atlantic Division. On Wednesday, Jack Eichel scored twice in the second period and Marcus Johansson lit the lamp 1:30 into overtime to secure a 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
Eichel currently sits atop Buffalo's scoring list with seven points (three goals, four assists), while rookie Victor Olofsson paces the club in goals (4). Rasmus Dahlin, a Calder Trophy finalist last season, leads the team in assists (6) and also ranks second among NHL blueliners in scoring.
"They've gotten off to a good start," Quenneville said of the Sabres. "Eichel's had a tremendous start to the season. He's dangerous coming up the ice through the middle with his speed and quickness. Their power play is pretty lethal right now, so let's stay out of the box."
Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start in net for the Panthers, while Linus Ullmark is slated to be between the pipes for Buffalo. Bobrovsky has been pretty stellar against the Sabres throughout his career, registering a 11-5-1 record behind a shiny .922 save percentage and one shutout.
Florida owned a 3-1-0 record against Buffalo last season.
"You need to win your division," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. "Four-point swings are important against teams that are in your division whenever it comes to the playoffs, especially early on in the season… Tonight, we've got to make sure we're prepared to play them."
-- Aaron Ekblad has picked an assist in two of three games to start the season and currently ranks first among Florida's skaters in average ice time per game (23:42). In 2018-19, the 23-year-old had 13 goals, 24 assists and a career-best 114 hits what seeing 1,938:49 of ice time.
-- Jonathan Huberdeau is tied for first on the Panthers with three assists. The 26-year-old winger is coming off the best season of his career in which he set a career-high in points (92), including a franchise-record 62 assists, during the 2018-19 campaign.
-- The NHL's active iron man, Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle took the ice for his 800th consecutive game on Tuesday against Carolina. The 33-year-old has tallied a goal and an assist through three games this season, with both of those points coming on the power play.
-- Aleksander Barkov, who registered a franchise-record 96 points in 2018-19, is currently tied for third on the Panthers in scoring with three points - all of them assists. The 24-year-old center has also been great in the faceoff circle, winning a team-best 52.4 percent of his draws.
-- Brett Connolly has registered a point in each of his first three games with the Panthers. A Stanley Cup champion in 2018, the 27-year-old winger joined Florida on a four-year deal this summer after posting career-bests in goals (22) and assists (24) last season with Washington.
-- Noel Acciari leads the Panthers in hits (8) and ranks second in blocked shots (5) this season.
-- Mike Matheson leads the Panthers with seven blocked shots this season.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Mike Hoffman
Frank Vatrano - Vincent Trocheck - Brett Connolly
Jayce Hawryluk - Denis Malgin - Evgenii Dadonov
Dryden Hunt - Noel Acciari - Colton Sceviour
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Anton Stralman
Keith Yandle - Josh Brown
Scratches: Henrik Borgstrom, Mark Pysyk
- 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.
HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN
When: Friday, Oct. 11, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: KeyBank Center - Buffalo, NY
Panthers Radio Network: 790 WAXY (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)