Jack Eichel’s arrival has the Buffalo Sabres buzzing over a very promising future, while Aaron Ekblad and the Florida Panthers are showing early signs of already coming of age.
The two teenage stars go head-to-head for the first time as professionals when their teams face off Thursday night.
Ekblad gave the Panthers all they could hope for during a banner rookie season that earned the 2014 No. 1 overall pick the Calder Trophy and helped Florida to a 25-point improvement over the previous campaign. The up-and-coming Panthers have looked ready to take another step forward by outscoring their opponents 11-3 over a 2-1-0 stretch to begin 2015-16.
The Panthers set a modern era record with four goals in the first 6:41 of Saturday’s 7-1 season-opening rout of Philadelphia, then struck three times in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-1 win at Carolina to bounce back from a 1-0 defeat to the Flyers the previous night.
Connor Brickley’s first NHL goal snapped a 1-1 tie with 7:42 remaining and Aleksander Barkov scored 50 seconds later to help seal the outcome.
"That’s how you have a successful team, when everybody’s chipping in from your first line to your fourth line and your defense," Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said. "It was a good team effort (Tuesday) and I was happy with the performance."
Florida has indeed gotten contributions throughout the lineup, with four players recording two goals and six posting at least three points through three games. Among the multi-goal scorers is 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, one of several veterans the Panthers have brought in over the past two seasons to aid their young core of Ekblad, Barkov and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad.
Eichel has so far lived up to the immense hype surrounding the 2015 No. 2 overall choice’s entry into the league. The 18-year-old center has two goals through his initial three games, including the game-winner in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-2 home victory over Columbus.
Buffalo (1-2-0) added three power-play goals to help Dan Bylsma garner his first win as the team’s head coach. Four of its six goals have come in man-advantage situations, an area where the Sabres converted at a league-low 13.4 percent clip while finishing last in the NHL with 54 points.
”I thought we earned the win,” Bylsma said. ”They had to battle for every inch, we were hard to play against, I think we gave them a lot to handle.”
Chad Johnson registered 22 saves in his second start in place of Robin Lehner, out 6 to 10 weeks with a high ankle sprain sustained in the Oct. 8 opener.
The Sabres are expected to have captain Brian Gionta, sidelined the first three games by a lower-body injury, in the lineup after he skated on a line with Eichel and Evander Kane during Wednesday’s practice.
Roberto Luongo, who’s stopped 70 of 72 shots through his first two starts, will be back in goal for Florida after Al Montoya made 22 saves Tuesday. Luongo had a 1.25 goals-against average and two shutouts while winning all four 2014-15 meetings with the Sabres.
Florida is 7-0-1 in its last eight against Buffalo, which has lost three straight at BB&T Center since a 3-1 win on Oct. 25, 2013.