CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Some quick Florida Panthers notes as we begin the transition from training camp to the regular season, which kicks off for the NHL on Tuesday night in Tampa.
The Panthers won’t hit the ice for Opening Night until Thursday, when they welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins to the newly minted FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.
Head Coach Joel Quenneville led a spirited practice on Monday, one that saw the team switch rinks two separate times in order to work on a clean sheet of ice as much as possible.
The Panthers will get the day off Tuesday before returning to the Ice Den on Wednesday for what Quenneville expects to be “our fastest practice we’ve had, pace-wise.”
“I’m sure the guys are excited about playing Thursday. Opening Night is always a big night, and getting off to a strong start is going to be the focus,” Quenneville said after Monday’s practice in Coral Springs.
With the focus now shifting from preseason games to ones that actually matter, Monday’s workout provided a glimpse into how Coach Q sees his lines and defensive pairings shaping up for Opening Night.
The top two lines remained the same, as did the top D pairing.
That’s Sasha Barkov centering Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart on the top line, and Sam Bennett lining up between Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett on line two.
Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar will be the top defensive duo, expected to gobble up tons of even strength minutes.
Perhaps the most intriguing element to Monday’s roster makeup was seeing rookie Anton Lundell centering the third line, flanked by Frank Vatrano and Patric Hornqvist.
Lundell was injured at the start of training camp so it took some extra time to get the 20-year-old settled into the lineup, but it’s been clear from talking to Quenneville over the past week that he and his staff are loving what they are seeing from the young Finn.
Quenneville has lit up like a Christmas tree while talking about Lundell, but Q said it was his play during Saturday’s preseason finale against Tampa that cemented his spot in Florida’s lineup.
“One of the most enjoyable things that stood out for me all camp was (Lundell’s) play in that game,” Quenneville said. “That really enhanced his positioning here.”
Monday’s fourth line was Eetu Luostarinen centering Joe Thornton and Anthony Duclair, with Ryan Lomberg skating as the 13th forward.
Luostarinen’s time with the Panthers has been a bit of a roller coaster, with some high highs and low lows, and lots of dips in-between.
If he can settle in and find some consistency, there is a lot to like about the versatile forward who Coach Q called “a pretty useful player.”
“I thought he had a really good start to last year, and then an ordinary ending,” Quenneville said of the man he calls Lousty. “His play right now has been probably better than how he ended, but I don’t know if it was as good as it was at the start.”
The defensive pairings also appeared on Monday to be what we should expected to see rolled out against Pittsburgh.
Beyond the best friend duo of Weegar and Ekblad, Quenneville has Gus Forsling skating alongside Radko Gudas, while Brandon Montour is paired up with Markus Nutivaara.
The Montour-Nutivaara team-up began during the final games of last season and looked pretty solid during the first-round playoff series against Tampa, so it’s no surprise to see Q going back to the well with this one.
Gudas and Forsling occasionally played together during the regular season before closing out the final four games of the postseason on a pairing. As training camp began winding down, they found themselves paired up once again.
“We played a lot together last year, so I feel like we have a good chemistry and know how to play together,” Forsling said Monday. “He’s a leader. You always know what you’ll get from him every night. I have a lot of respect for him, and I’m taking some notes from him.”
Florida’s seventh defenseman is expected to be former No. 5 overall pick Olli Juolevi, who was acquired in a trade with Vancouver on Sunday.
Coach Q didn’t have a timeline for when Juolevi would arrive in South Florida, as is often the case when a player moves from a Canadian team to one in the States, or vice-a-versa.
“I don’t know much about Olli,” Quenneville admitted. “I know from talking with Bill (Zito) over the last couple days and talking with a lot of people who have seen him play, I know he had a strong career in junior, coming out of London.
“I think the opportunity here…I know the depth on our back end has been deeper some other times, but right now it’s not as extensive as it was. A fresh start and a new organization is going to be healthy for him. I’m sure our guys are going to be in the same position. It’s one of those trades that can be accommodating for the player. Finding a new home and a new opportunity, sometimes you can take advantage of that.”
Quenneville said Mason Marchment is “close” to returning to practice and is “an outside chance for Thursday.”
Q added that Maxim Mamin is “kinda close to getting into practice” and defenseman Kevin Connauton is possible to return to the ice by the end of the week.