SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers opened their 2020-21 season in front of a sparce and socially distant crowd the BB&T Center, hoping to get off on the proverbial right foot.
Or skate, as it were.
The Cats did just that, getting goals from five different players and a solid showing from goaltender Chris Driedger in a 5-2 victory over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.
Driedger was called into action due to starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky not being quite ready to start the season due to an extended stint on the Unfit to Play list, and ‘Dreegs’ filled in quite nicely.
Despite seeing just five shots on goal during the first period, Driedger was sharp throughout. He finished the game with 23 saves, improving his record to 8-2-1 over two seasons in Florida.
“I thought [Driedger] played very well,” Head Coach Joel Quenneville said after the game. “What we saw last year, his composure, patience and confidence that he seems to play with, in the first game of the year right off the bat…he did what he had to do. He looked big, he looked patient, big factor in tonight’s win.”
The Panthers defended well in front of Driedger, limiting Chicago to only a handful of high-danger opportunities and allowing him to see the puck and control rebounds.
It was exactly the kind of start to the season that Florida was hoping for after having Opening Night pushed back four days due to the Dallas Stars’ COVID-19 outbreak.
“It felt great out there,” Driedger said. “I had a little pregame nerves going into it, but I think we all did.”
Defenseman Keith Yandle, once thought to be a healthy scratch candidate for Opening Night, played in his 867th consecutive game, most among all active players in the NHL.
Yandle showed Quenneville that keeping him in the lineup was a wise decision, scoring his 100th career goal early in the second period and giving a big boost to his teammates in the process.
“Anytime I score I’m pretty excited,” Yandle said of his fist-pumping celly in front of Florida’s bench. “It was definitely a special one. Seeing how excited the guys were for me definitely meant a lot.”
Also scoring for the Panthers were Aaron Ekblad, rookie Eetu Luostarinen, Patric Hornqvist and Jonathan Huberdeau.
For Luostarinen, not only was his goal the game-winner, it was also his first in the NHL. He skated in eight games for the Carolina Hurricanes before Florida acquired him last season in the Trade Deadline deal for Vincent Trocheck.
Asked about his big goal after the game, Luostarinen seemed more interested in talking about the team’s win than his individual accomplishment.
“I felt good out there,” he said. “I think that’s a huge win for us and a good way to start off the season. Two points, that’s what we wanted.”
Florida will be back in action Tuesday night when they host the Blackhawks again before embarking on the team’s first road trip of the season.
It will be a great opportunity for Florida’s new-look roster, which had eight players make their Panthers debut Sunday, to continue gelling and getting acclimated to one another both on and off the ice.
Road trips are known as a great place for team bonding, though Driedger said that what they did together against Chicago plays just as big a role in that department.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, but there’s nothing that brings a group closer than winning some hockey games,” he said.