The Florida Panthers didn’t even have to wait until the second period of their first preseason game to put together the type of highlight-reel play their fans got used to seeing last year.
They were on a penalty kill in the final minute of the first period in Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Nashville Predators on Monday when Aleksander Barkov stole the puck in the defensive zone and sprung Eetu Luostarinen and Santtu Kinnunen for a 2-on-1 chance. Luostarinen, the Panthers’ fourth-line center a year ago, acted like he was going to pass, then tapped the puck back through his legs after the Predators’ defender moved toward Kinnunen and fired a shot into the top left corner of the net.
Florida’s first goal of the 2022-23 NHL season was an absolute beauty and the Panthers began the preseason with a 4-3, overtime win on a buzzer-beater by Barkov in the first game of a doubleheader in Nashville.
Florida split its training-camp roster in two squads for a pair of games at Bridgestone Arena the first group — headlined by Barkov, star defenseman Aaron Ekblad and star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky; All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk was in the second group — provided the first taste of what the Panthers might look like this season.
Panthers’ depth, skill still there
The Luostarinen goal summed up so much of what made Florida great last year and should still make the Panthers great this year.
The 24-year-old forward anchored one of the best fourth lines in hockey last year and will probably be in the same spot in the lineup this season, which is good news for Florida because he’s probably overqualified for his fourth-line role.
Luostarinen is rock solid defensively and the flashy first-period goal was unlike anything the Finn did last season.
The opening-game roster was more a showcase of depth than top-end talent — most of the likely second- and third-line players were set to play in Game 2 on Mondayhe — and there were positive moments from plenty of those fringe players. Rookie center Aleksi Heponiemi, 23, put two shots on goal, was part of about half a dozen scoring chances and eventually got a look on the top line. Eric Staal, the six-time All-Star center on a professional tryout, posted three shots and was in on about a dozen scoring chances, too. Even 18-year-old left wing prospect Kai Schwindt scored a goal in the second period.
Staal makes good first impression
Staal’s line with Heponiemi and left wing Ryan Lomberg was Florida’s most consistently dangerous group in Game 1 — the Panthers outshot the Predators, 6-3, when they were on the ice and Lomberg scored in the third period — and Staal helped elevate the play of just about any young player he played with.
Florida’s first good scoring chance of the game came in the first four minutes, when Staal and Lomberg won a battle on the right-hand boards and Lomberg fed Denisenko in the slot for an open shot, which he fired just wide. Staal later was party of a pretty crossover passing play with Denisenko to tee up Kinnunen for a shot on goal, and later teamed up with right wing prospect Logan Hutsko to generate a pair of dangerous scoring chances.
At 35, Staal is obviously not the athlete he used to be — he got beaten down the ice for a breakaway goal in the second period — but coach Paul Maurice gave the forward plenty of opportunities on both the power play and penalty kill in his Panthers debut. He looks capable of filling a Joe Thornton-style role, if the Florida decides it wants a veteran presence like Thornton, still a free agent, provided last season.
Verhaeghe-Barkov-Balcers line debuts
The right wing spot next to Barkov and left wing Carter Verhaeghe has been a revolving door ever since they got together near the top line at the start of the 2020-21 NHL season, and Rudolfs Balcers is getting the first crack there this year.
The 25-year-old winger signed a one-year deal with the Panthers in July, looking for a second chance after the San Jose Sharks unexpectedly bought out his contract, and he couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.
Plenty came Monday, even though he couldn’t quite find the back of the net. Balcers led Florida with four shots on goal, also playing some with Staal and Lomberg.