Panthers 'Raring to Go' as Preseason Closes Out in Tampa Bayby Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - We've reached the end of the preseason road.
In their finale tune-up before diving headfirst into the regular season, the Florida Panthers will play their last exhibition against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.
"We're all excited to get the show on the road here," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said following an upbeat morning skate at the Panthers IceDen. "The last preseason game, it's kind of a tune-up and just getting ready for the season to start. Everybody's raring to go."
Tonight will mark the third straight meeting between the cross-state rivals. After winning the first matchup 6-3, the Panthers are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Lightning at BB&T Center on Thursday night. However, even in defeat, Florida had a great opening period, limiting Tampa Bay to seven shots on goal while carrying a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
Looking back at that hot start, Joel Quenneville sees a recipe for success.
"We had a good start last game," the Panthers head coach said. "We did everything we wanted to in the first period. I think we want to play with some purpose, some pace and some simplicity as well. Playing the same way for 60 minutes is what we're looking for."
That first-period goal came off of the stick of red-hot rookie Owen Tippett, who has found the back of the net in each of his last three games. The 10th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, the 20-year-old sniper is one of a handful of players left on Florida's roster still fighting for a spot.
"I think he's gotten better as camp's progressed here," Quenneville said of Tippett. "He's got high-end ability with the puck, with the shot, with the quickness of his release and strength in tight areas. I think playing without the puck is something he's getting better at as well."
Tippett and several other players thought to be right on the roster bubble such as Dryden Hunt, Dominic Toninato and Riley Stillman will have a good opportunity to shine tonight as some of Florida's top players like Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad are expected to sit this one out.
"A couple guys were coming off some bumps and bruises there," Quenneville said when asked about resting a few guys, a group that's also expected to include Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Matheson. "We decided to make sure they're ready for the start of the regular season, and then go from there."
For Anton Stralman, tonight's matchup will mark his first time playing in Tampa Bay as a visitor in quite some time. The 33-year-old defenseman spent five seasons manning the Lightning's blue line before joining the Panthers on a three-year contract during free agency this summer.
"I've been doing this clash for the last few years," said Stralman, who tallied 130 points in 355 games with the Bolts. "It's a little bit different now being here and playing against them, but it's fun. It's always fun to play former teams. It gives me a little bit extra to play against them."
Stralman said he's been impressed with the progress the Panthers have made thus far.
"There's not as much hesitation in our game," he said. "There's still a little bit, but it's going to take time to hammer all those little details down. Overall, I think you've seen steps. Even though we lost the game the other night, I thought a lot of portions of that game was good hockey from our side… You just want to see progression in your game and how that process is coming along. I think it has. Tonight is another chance to work on it and get better."
In a battle between two of the league's best goaltenders, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start in net for the Panthers, while Andrei Vasilevskiy will likely get the nod for the Lightning. During Tuesday's loss in Sunrise, Vasilevskiy, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, allowed six goals.
Last year's Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner, winger Nikita Kucherov, who also scored the game-winning goal on Thursday night, leads the Lightning with three goals in the preseason.
Tampa Bay won the Presidents' Trophy in 2018-19 with a franchise-record 128 points.
"In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best," said Trocheck, who has two assists in three preseason games. "Playing against these guys is a good start to get us into the game and get us into the season. It's a good challenge. We can gauge ourselves off of them."
The Cats and Bolts will reconvene in Tampa Bay for the regular-season opener on Oct. 3.
"We just want to have good habits," Quenneville said when asked about what he hopes to see in tonight's game. "We want to make sure we work well together. We want to have a little more pace to our game, make sure that we're checking properly and have the puck a bit more."
-- Aaron Ekblad leads the Panthers with four assists in the preseason. The 23-year-old blueliner posted 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 seasons.
-- Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov are tied for team lead with five points apiece in the preseason. Two-thirds of Florida's dynamic top line, each has registered a goal and an assist. In 2018-19, Barkov set a franchise record with 96 points, while Dadonov posted a career-best 70.
-- Mike Hoffman has two power-play goals in five preseason games. The 29-year-old winger led the Panthers with a career-best 36 goals last season, including 17 on the power play, which was tied for fourth-most in the NHL. In 2018-19, he also reached a new career-high with 70 points.
-- Joel Quenneville is entering his first season as head coach of the Panthers after being hired by the team in April. The NHL's second-winningest head coach with 890 career regular-season victories, he helped guide the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
-- Florida owned the league's second-best power play (26.8 percent) and 10th-best penalty kill (81.3 percent) in 2018-19. On the man advantage, defenseman Keith Yandle set a franchise-record 39 points. Only Steven Stamkos (40) and Nikita Kucherov (48) ranked ahead of him.
Mike Hoffman - Vincent Trocheck - Colton Sceviour
Frank Vatrano - Henrik Borgstrom - Owen Tippett
Jayce Hawryluk - Noel Acciari - Denis Malgin
Dryden Hunt - Dominic Toninato - Evgenii Dadonov
Keith Yandle - Josh Brown
MacKenzie Weegar - Anton Stralman
Riley Stillman - Mark Pysyk
Scratches: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brett Connolly, Aaron Ekblad, Mike Matheson
- 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.
- Sept. 21: F Serron Noel was returned to his junior club.
- Sept. 21: F Rodrigo Abols, F Jonathan Ang, F Joel Lowry, F Kevin Roy, F Paul Thompson, D Tommy Cross, D Jake Massie and G Ryan Bednard were loaned to AHL Springfield.
HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN
When: Saturday, Sept. 28, 7:00 p.m. ET
Where: Amalie Arena - Tampa, FL
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)