The Florida Panthers got their first look at game action of 2021-22, as their prospects took the ice for the 2021 Prospect Showcase in Wesley Chapel, Florida. After a slow start offensively, the Panthers fell 3-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes in the opening game of the tournament.
Lapses in the defensive zone allowed for the Hurricanes’ prospects to pepper Spencer Knight enough to break through in the second period, when Ryan Suzuki unloaded a one-timer off a face-off with 7:40 to go in the first period to give Carolina the lead. They wouldn’t relent from there, as Justin Robidas unloaded a wicked wrist shot from the left face-off circle with 2:19 left in the second period to give the Canes a 2-0.
The Hurricanes built off of that momentum in the third period, with Stelio Mattheos deflecting a shot past Knight after a strong offensive zone push to take a 3-0 lead 56 seconds in. It took until the Panthers pulled their goalie for them to get on the board when Robert Calisti fired a shot that was deflected by Knight to make it a 3-1 game with 56.5 seconds to go.
While this is only the first of three games the Panthers will play in this tournament, a lot of storylines that fans should be watching throughout camp are starting to play out. Here are some of my observations on those storylines.
Spencer Knight Is Ready to Compete for the Starting Job
Yes, Knight did give up three goals this morning, but he looked terrific otherwise. He posted a .928 save percentage as well, stopping 39 of the 42 shots he faced during that game. Of those saves, I counted at least 15 times where he made a terrific save in a high-danger scoring opportunity, especially throughout the second period, when the Hurricanes were dominant.
Of the three goals, only Robidas’ goal looked like one Knight would’ve wanted to have back. On Suzuki’s goal, Knight did his best to get to the other side of the net before he took that beautiful shot, but his release was too quick for Knight to be able to get there after the faceoff. On Mattheos’ goal, Knight was facing a fury of shots beforehand until that deflection just beat him for the third goal of the game.
There is still a lot of camp left for Knight to get ready to compete for the starting job, but he seems to look comfortable already in his first game action of 2021-22.
Grigori Denisenko Is a Level Above Everyone Else
While Grigori Denisenko didn’t get on the scoreboard in Saturday’s game, it was apparent that his skill level is on a different plane than the rest of the players at the Prospect Showcase Tournament. His speed causes problems for the opposition, which was apparent when he caused an odd-man rush in the first period and drew a hooking penalty to send the Panthers to their first power play.
Denisenko’s line with Anton Lundell and Logan Hustko was the most dynamic line on the ice for either team during that game. They created a lot of high-danger scoring chances and a lot of that had to do with Denisenko’s speed and playmaking ability. He found Lundell in the slot multiple times throughout the game, but Eetu Makaniemi held firm.
Denisenko already proved he can play with that same tenacity at the NHL level when he put up four assists in seven games with the Panthers last season, and he could potentially make a push for the opening night roster if he continues to show his skillset throughout the tournament.
Blue Line Battle Needs More Time to Develop
The Panthers have three defensemen on hand who have a shot at competing for a spot on the team’s blue line to start the season: Matt Kiersted, John Ludvig, and Max Gildon. Of those three players, Gildon and Ludvig were the only two that showed flashes of being ready for NHL action during that game.
With a lot of time being spent in their own zone and a lot of mistakes being made in dangerous areas, it was apparent that each of these players still have areas to work on before being in the NHL full time. However, Gildon did look most comfortable in the defensive zone and was the best puck mover on the ice, while Ludvig was very aggressive in the offensive zone and helped create scoring chances on the power play.
Ludvig also showed a lot of physicality in the defensive zone, laying some huge hits while the Panthers were on the penalty kill to help them clear the puck out. However, with the Hurricanes scoring two of their three goals on the power play, it’s apparent that Ludvig and his counterparts need to develop more in that area of the game.
With Zdeno Chara inking a one-year deal with the New York Islanders this morning, the options on the free-agent market for left-handed defensemen are growing slimmer and slimmer, so the Panthers need to see more out of these players to potentially take that third spot on the left side.
With 26 days remaining until the start of the 2021-22 season, there is still a lot more to watch for as the Panthers continue training camp. Their next step is a matchup against the Nashville Predators’ prospects at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 19.