SUNRISE, FL – It took nearly twenty years, but last evening the Florida Panthers were able to unveil their first ever Southeast Division Championship banner in front of a sold out crowd at the BB&T Center in South Florida.
As I made my way up the stairs outside of the arena, I was greeted by something I had never before seen at a Panthers’ games – fans begging for tickets. A trail of melancholy hockey lovers made their way from the ticket counters back to their cars as they were informed that the game had been sold out for hours.
Is this the beginning of a new era of prosperity for the Panthers in South Florida, or just a one night event?
When we get deeper into the season maybe that question will be answered , but on the ice the Florida Panthers took no time in answering their critics as they obliterated the hapless Carolina Hurricanes 5-1 in front of nearly 20,000 cheering fans.
The start of the Panthers’ 2013 season couldn’t have been scripted any better as rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau netted his first career NHL goal only 3:37 into the game – giving the Panthers an early 1-0 lead and bringing the BB&T Center to life.
“That made me a little less nervous for the rest of the game.” Huberdeau told George Richards of the Miami Herald after the game.
With Huberdeau’s nerves calmed and the rest of the Panthers feeding off the energy of a raucous crowd, the flood gates opened and the team went on a scoring tear.
Defenseman Brian Campbell picked up right where he left off last season as a dominate force on the Cat’s power play unit. Campbell was able to score two power play goals in the first period of action and was a key factor in taking the Hurricanes out of the game early. This was only Campbell’s second career two goal game, his only other came when he played for the Buffalo Sabres in 2005. Including Campbell’s two goals, the Panthers were an impressive 3 for 6 on the power play – thoroughly dismantling the Hurricane’s defense when up a man.
The Panthers’ final goal of the night came in the second period when a Jonathan Huberdeau pass set up veteran Alex Kovalev for his first goal of the season – giving the Panthers a 5-0 lead.
Kovalev, who was initially brushed off by many as an inconsequential training camp invitee, proved to the hockey world that he still had a lot left in the tank. Along with scoring his 429th career goal, Kovalev also added two assists and was named the 3rd star of the game.
The second line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev was clearly the best offensive unit for the Panthers all night long. The trio was able to rack up a combined 7 points (2G 5A) for the evening and helped give the Panthers a nice cushion the entire game. Huberdeau alone racked up 3 points (1G 2A) and was named the game’s first star – an impressive feat for such a young talent.
After the game, veteran Alex Kovalev was asked about Huberdeau’s stellar debut and overall perspective on the rookie’s memorable evening.
“He shows what he did in juniors, and he continued doing the same thing here… I said to him this morning that the game is the same, maybe just a faster pace, maybe just bigger guys, but the game is the same.” Kovalev told Panthers.nhl.com.
Although it was the Panthers’ goals that brought the fans to their feet early in the game, it was goalie Jose Theodore’s saves that keep them cheering throughout.
Somewhat lost in the Panthers’ offensive explosion, Theodore had a spectacular game in net, one reminiscent of his days in Montreal when he took home the Vezina Trophy.
Theodore stopped 41 of the Hurricane’s shots and only gave up one lone goal in the second period after the Panthers already had the game well in hand.
If this is the Jose Theodore we see every night, then goalie in waiting Jacob Markstrom could end up be stuck in the AHL for the entirety of the 2013 season.
What makes this opening night victory even more impressive is the fact that the Panthers came into the game missing five starters including top line winger Kris Versteeg and stellar defenders Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson.
The team now heads to Canada for games against the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens before returning home to host the Senators on January 24th. As the team gets healthier we can only expect them to improve as they continue to show the rest of the hockey world that last season’s success was not a fluke.