The Florida Panthers rang in the 20th season of NHL hockey in South Florida by streaking past the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 in their home opener Friday night. 6-foot-6 goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who has for several years been among the top goaltending prospects in the NHL, stopped 36-of-39 shots in a game the Panthers never trailed, while Tomas Fleischmann earned first star honors with a one-goal, four point night and Finnish forward Aleksander Barkov, the second player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, recorded a goal and two assists as well. Fleischmann and Barkov have skated at even strength with free agent signee Brad Boyes; the trio combined for 10 points in Friday’s win.
And then there’s Jonathan Huberdeau, last year’s Calder Memorial Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Debuting professionally as a 19-year-old in 2012-13, the third overall pick of the 2011 draft recorded 31 points (14-17-31) and was the brightest spot in an otherwise dismal season for Panthers, who dealt with major injury issues a year after winning the Southeast Division and ultimately finished with an NHL-low 36 points by virtue of a 15-27-6 record.
Keaton Ellerby, who played briefly with Huberdeau at the start of the 2012-13 season, gave a ringing endorsement of the now 20-year-old.
“He’s unreal. I mean, so much skill,” said Ellerby, who was selected 10th overall by the Panthers in 2007. “He’s not a very big guy, but he goes to the hard places and works hard, battles. He obviously has tremendous skill, and can put the puck in the net, create stuff. Power play. He’s an unreal player.”
With Florida’s young skill considered, Los Angeles expects a significant challenge at 3:00 p.m. local time on Sunday.
“They’re a very good transition team, a real skilled team up front,” Darryl Sutter said of the Panthers. “Obviously they bring [Tim] Thomas in, and he gets hurt. Markstrom plays last night, and he plays really well. Their power play was really good last night. The [Finnish] player they took they took [second] overall is a really good player. Gudbranson’s a really good player. They have lots of really young players, which they should, because they won their division two years ago but they have a high number of high draft picks in their lineup. They’re going to be really good at home. They have good leadership. They’re exceptionally well-coached. They’ll be a very tough opponent for the Los Angeles Kings tomorrow.”