Preview: After trip abroad, Panthers finally return home to take on Oilers

TV: FOX Sports Florida

TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.

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This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Florida Panthers started slowly last year, but — from Jan. 30 to the end of the regular season — were the best team in the Eastern Conference, falling just one point short of the playoffs.

Several prominent NHL writers predicted the Panthers would make the playoffs this season, and at least one put Florida down for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.

That’s why this week is big for the Panthers (3-5-3), who play three straight home games.

The Panthers haven’t played since beating the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 last Friday in Finland. That game marked the return of Panthers starting goalie Roberto Luongo, who hadn’t played since injuring his right knee during his team’s season opener.

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In his only full game of the season, Luongo made 32 saves and picked up the win against a team that made the Western Conference semifinals last season.

“(Luongo) is amazing,” Panthers center and team captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s speaking a lot in the net, telling us what to do, yelling and giving us advice. We feel confident in front of him.”

Luongo, who gave up one power-play goal and another five-on-five against the Jets, made 17 saves in the third period alone.

On Thursday, Luongo will face Oilers superstar center Connor McDavid, who at age 21 is already considered the greatest hockey player in the world. He has won two straight Art Ross awards for most points in the NHL and also two straight Ted Lindsay awards given to the league’s best player as voted on by his peers.

Last season, McDavid had a career-high 41 goals and 67 assists and a career-high 108 points. This season, he already has 10 goals and 12 assists in 15 games.

Edmonton‘s other top points-getters are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (three goals, 14 assists) and Leon Draisaitl (nine goals, seven assists).

The Oilers are healthy except for third-pairing defenseman Andrei Sekera, who is expected to miss most of the season afterAchilles tendon surgery. Fourth-line Oilers winger Ty Rattie (upper-body injury) returned Tuesday night and had an assist.

Edmonton is led in goal by starter Cam Talbot, who had the night off on Tuesday but is 5-5-1 with 2.93 goals-against average and a .899 save percentage so far this season.

Oilers backup Mikko Koskinen, who had been 3-0-0 in his three previous starts, took a 5-2 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.

“A couple of nights off won’t hurt anybody,” Talbot said after Koskinen got off to such a hot start this season. “I knew coming into this season that they would be taking the number of my games down. I’d like to play 60 or 65 games, but it’s great to have two good goalies.”

Indeed, Talbot averaged 70 games in each of the past two years.

The Panthers have two solid goalies overall in Luongo and backup James Reimer. But Reimer has struggled this season with a 1-4-1 record, a 3.36 GAA and an .885 save percentage.

Florida is led in points by Evgenii Dadonov, who has a team-high-tying six goals to go with seven assists.

But several Panthers forwards have yet to get untracked, and that includes Barkov (two goals, seven assists).

Vincent Trocheck has just three goals, and Jonathan Huberdeau has two goals.

The Panthers are fairly healthy with the forwards on the injured list all profiling as fourth liners: Derek MacKenzie, Micheal Haley, Jared McCann and Jamie McGinn. In addition, defenseman Mark Pysyk has also been out