SUNRISE, Fla. – The revamped Florida Panthers were expected to look a bit different when taking the ice for the first time, but not so much in the goal crease.
Starting netminder Sergei Bobrovsky will miss at least Florida’s season opener Sunday as he works his way back from a stint on the Unfit to Play list during training camp, leaving an opening for another ‘tender to grab the Opening Night spotlight.
That man will be 26-year-old Chris Driedger.
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville confirmed to the media following Saturday morning’s practice at the BB&T Center that it would be Driedger in goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, with Samuel Montembeault working as the backup.
“It’s all been really exciting,” Driedger said Saturday. “I’m going into what’s not going to be my rookie season anymore and it’s really exciting to get the ball rolling in the right direction here.”
Quenneville said the hope is that Bobrovsky will start Florida’s second game, also against Chicago, on Tuesday night.
Last season Driedger went 7-2-1 in limited action for the Panthers, including an impressive .938 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average.
It was Driedger’s play, particularly toward the end of the Covid-shortened regular season, that helped Florida into a qualifying spot for the postseason.
“He had a great run for us, he did a great job of giving us a great chance,” Quenneville said after boldly stating “Driedge” would start Game 1 for Florida. “Guys got a little bit familiar with him around the net. I thought he had a lot of poise, patience and he used his size to his advantage. He kept the game very simple and I thought he really enhanced his opportunity to be an NHL goalie.”
Performing at that level once again would give a huge boost to a Florida team that is also expecting a bounce-back year from Bobrovsky after he struggled during his first season with the Panthers.
It’s a big ask of Driedger, but it’s nothing that he feels he can’t handle.
“I’m ready to go, I’m preparing to play just like I do every night,” said Driedger. “Whatever does happen, I’m going to be excited.”
It’s not known how Quenneville will work his goaltending situation once all are healthy and available to play, but that time should arrive in short order.
For now, though, it’s nice knowing Florida has a more than capable backup who has a full calendar year of NHL hockey under his belt.
“Last year was great for me to just come in and play some games, get some confidence and get this team hopefully confident in me,” said Driedger. “I’m just looking to take that forward into this season. [I’ve got those] rookie season jitters out of the way, so hopefully I can just take that energy and momentum and move forward into the season.”
While Florida has been forced to endure an extended stay in the preseason waiting room, the Blackhawks have played twice already and are anxious to pick up their first points in the Central Division standings.
Chicago enters Sunday’s game coming off a pair of losses to defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay earlier this week.
Florida’s first two games scheduled for Thursday and Friday were postponed when several players and staff members from the Dallas Stars were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Sure, the Panthers were afforded a couple extra practice days and got a second scrimmage out of it, but it can’t be easy to watch rest of the league going at full speed while still sitting in park at the starting line.
“It’s tough seeing those other teams play and get this going,” Driedger said. “We’ve waited a couple days watching other teams play and now it’s our turn.”