Florida Panthers at Minnesota Wild game preview
SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- In some ways, it will be the same old thing for Eric Staal to face the Panthers on Tuesday, just like he did dozens of times when he skated for the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida was a rival in the old Southeast Division.
And in other ways, everything is different for the Minnesota Wild's newest offensive threat.
Staal, in his first season in Minnesota after signing as a free agent over the summer, enters this game having recently reached a major milestone. His assist on an empty net goal late in the Wild's 3-1 win over St. Louis on Sunday gives Staal 800 career points. He seems anything but satisfied with the round number.
"It's a nice feeling," said Staal, who will be facing the Panthers for the 67th time in his career on Tuesday. "Honestly, I'm hoping for a lot more as my career moves on. But nonetheless, very grateful and honored to one, make the NHL and to play as long as I have and to put up that kind of number is special."
The Wild have been playing well at home generally, and host a Panthers team that has never won a regulation game in Minnesota, going 0-7-2 all-time at Xcel Energy Center.
The Panthers went through a rough stretch in late November and early December, but come to Minnesota on a winning note after beating the Canucks 4-2 at home on Saturday. They're solidly in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Division, making every available point critical.
"It feels like they're all must-wins. This early in the season everybody's all bunched together," said Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who had a long string of rough outings in Minnesota when he played for the Canucks and battles with the Wild were common in the old Northwest Division.
"That being said, you want to take it one game at a time, you don't want to look at the big picture or what's ahead, you just want to look at the next game coming up."
The win over the Canucks was the latest chapter in the resurgence of Alexsander Barkov, who had a goal and an assist versus Vancouver and now his nine points in his past nine games.
"I think when your best players are your best players they kind of lead the troops and get everything going in the right direction," said Panthers interim head coach Tom Rowe, who took over the reins on Nov. 27 when Gerard Gallant was fired.
Another Panthers newcomer, Seth Griffith, who was claimed by Florida off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs in early November, got an assist versus the Canucks and said he's feeling more comfortable in the new setting.
"Coming to a new team and guys saying they believe in you goes a long way toward your confidence," Griffith said. "But it's easier said than done. You have to come here and work every day and that's what I'm trying to do, to soak it all in."
It will also be the annual homecoming of former University of Minnesota stars Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, both of whom skate for the Panthers.