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Preview: Driedger in Net as Panthers Look to Stay Perfect in Columbus

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The Panthers aren't surprised by their early-season success.

Off to the first 3-0-0 start in franchise history after an epic come-from-behind win in Columbus on Tuesday, the Panthers will look to stretch their undefeated streak to four games when they close out their two-game series with the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Thursday night.

"We're obviously happy with the way we're playing," Panthers winger Anthony Duclair said after Wednesday's practice. "I think we deserve to be 3-0, especially after last night's win. We just want to build off that. We know what's at stake every game -- every point counts immensely."

In that aforementioned win, the Panthers stunned the Blue Jackets when Patric Hornqvist lit the lamp with 2.5 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game 3-3 and force overtime. Following a scoreless extra frame, Hornqvist - who else? - then scored in the shootout to secure the win.

Leading the Panthers in goals (4) and tied for the team-lead in points (5), Hornqvist is the first player in franchise history to score a goal in each of his first three games with the Panthers, who acquired the 34-year-old veteran from the Penguins in what already looks like a steal of a trade.

"He's been huge for us so far and he's going to be huge for us the whole season," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said of Hornqvist's early contributions following the victory. "That leadership he brings in the locker room and on the ice, scoring big goals for us, just leading the way, it helps us a lot to have a veteran guy like him out there on the ice and in the locker room."

While Hornqvist has been doing a lot of damage on the scoresheet, Florida's new-look top line has also been putting on a show every time they're on the ice. Coming together early in training camp, the outstanding trio of Barkov, Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe has combined for 13 points.

More impressive, however, is their possession numbers.

In full control of the action at 5-on-5, the Panthers have held sizeable advantages over opposing teams in numerous metrics, including shots on goals (30-15), shot attempts (48-25) and scoring chances (24-9) whenever that top line has been deployed on the ice, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

"The line's rolling right now," said Duclair, who's racked up a team-leading four assists already. "We want to keep getting offensive opportunities and making sure we're aware in our defensive end. We know our job and what to do out there. With Barky's skill and vision, it's pretty easy for me and Haegs to get open, use our speed and get pucks on net as much as we can."

In net, Chris Driedger is expected to make his second start of the season for the Panthers after Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 19 shots in Tuesday's win. Driedger has not played since Florida's home opener, when he turned aside 28 of 30 shots during a 5-2 win over Chicago on Jan. 17.

In 12 appearances last season, Driedger went 7-2-1 with a .938 save percentage.

"Early on in the year, we want to make sure that both guys are going and into it," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the goaltending tandem. "As we go along, things could be sorted out by performance. We've got a back-to-back, four in six, that's kind of the way we budgeted the trip."

With rookie forward Owen Tippett being assigned to the taxi squad this morning, defenseman Markus Nutivaara is expected to be added to Florida's roster and make his season debut tonight. Picked up by the Panthers in a trade with Columbus during the offseason, he missed most of training camp while on the unfit to play list. In 37 games in 2019-20, the 26-year-old posted nine points (three goals, six assists).

"I'm really excited, really excited," said Nutivaara, who spent the first four seasons of his NHL career with the Blue Jackets. "It feels so long since I played last time. I've been practicing with the team. Of course, I missed all of training camp, so I've been waiting for this day for a while. I'm really excited."

With Nutivaara coming back into the fold, the Panthers are expected to deploy seven defensemen.

"We expect a much harder, different opponent than we saw the other night," Quenneville said of tonight's tilt. "They'll be ready. They're a competitive group. As the team game goes, they're relentless."

Although they came up short against the Panthers the last time out, the Blue Jackets will enter tonight's matchup looking to extend a five-game point streak. In that span, they've gone 2-0-3 to climb to second place in the Central Division. But, of course, the standings are can be deceiving this early in the season.

Alexandre Texier, who found the back of the net on Tuesday, leads Columbus in goals (4) and is tied with Oliver Bjorkstrand for the most points (6). Off to a hot start, Texier, a second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, has notched at least one point in five of seven games this season.

Acquired along with Patrik Laine from Winnipeg in a blockbuster deal on Jan. 23, Jack Roslovic is expected to make his debut with the Blue Jackets. A hometown hero, the 23-year-old posted 12 goals and 17 assists in 71 contests in 2019-20. Laine, meanwhile, is still not ready to suit up.

After making 28 saves against Florida earlier this week, it's possible that Joonas Korpisalo gets the nod in net again tonight. If he doesn't, however, look for Elvis Merzlikins to man the crease in his place. Korpisalo boasts a .928 save percentage this season, while Merzlikins' sits at .819.

Overall, the Panthers have earned at least a point in each of their last two games against Columbus.

"We know they're a good team," Verhaeghe said. "They're going to be coming out hard. It's up to us to match it. I like the way we played last night. I think we've just got to keep building on it." Check back after this morning's skate for an updated game preview.

TEAM RECORDS

FLA: 3-0-0, 6 PTS

CBJ: 2-2-3, 7 PTS

FLA all-time vs. CBJ: 11-14-9

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov has recorded four points (one goal, three assists) in three games this season. With one more goal, the 25-year-old will move into a tie with Scott Mellanby (157) for the second-most in franchise history. In 17 career games against Columbus, he has six goals.

-- After leading the Panthers in scoring with 78 points (23 goals, 55 assists) in 2019-20, Jonathan Huberdeau has tallied one goal and three assists in three games this season.

-- Aaron Ekblad has recorded at least one point (one goal, two assists) in each of his first three games so far this season. The 24-year-old defenseman also leads Florida in average ice time per game (26:51), including skating a team-high 27:39 in Tuesday's win over the Blue Jackets.

-- Carter Verhaeghe is tied with Patric Hornqvist for the most points on the Panthers with five (three goals, two assists). With all of his points coming at even strength, the 25-year-old forward has at least one point in each game this season, including scoring Florida's opening goal twice.

-- Brett Connolly is expected to compete in his 500th NHL game tonight.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Frank Vatrano - Eetu Luostarinen - Brett Connolly

Vinnie Hinostroza - Noel Acciari

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Gustav Forsling - Anton Stralman

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Markus Nutivaara

Goalies

Chris Driedger

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratches: Ryan Lomberg, Juho Lammikko, Noah Juulsen

Taxi Squad: Aleksi Heponiemi, Mason Marchment, Kevin Connauton, Owen Tippett, Philippe Desrosiers

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- Jan. 28: D Markus Nutivaara was added to the Panthers active roster.

- Jan. 28: F Owen Tippet was assigned to Florida's taxi squad.

- Jan. 23: D Brady Keeper and D Riley Stillman were assigned from Florida's Taxi Squad to Syracuse (AHL).

- Jan. 22: F Juho Lammikko was added to the Panthers active roster.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Thursday, Jan. 28, 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: Nationwide Area - Columbus, OH

TV: FOX Sports Florida

Stream: FOX Sports GO

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9/1370 WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming 932

Pre-Game Listen: Check out the latest episode of the Territory Talk podcast featuring Noel Acciari!

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