Panthers come out firing in season opener
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers opened their season with a subdued banner raising. They waited until the puck dropped to set off the fireworks.
Florida began its defense of the Southeast Division title Saturday night, unleashing its revamped second line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev on the unassuming Carolina Hurricanes. The trio combined for two goals and five assists in the Panthers' 5-1 win.
Following his team's morning skate, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said he felt more prepared for the Panthers' game plan this season.
High-tempo. Up-and-down. Run-and-gun.
"They gave us a little trouble last year because of the style they play," Muller said. "We know them better now."
At least he thought they did.
Enter's the Panthers' second line. Or perhaps now, its first.
The Panthers, who ranked 27th in offense last season with just 197 goals, built a 5-0 lead 24 minutes into the game. And Florida's power play, which many predicted to see a dropoff in production following the departure of free agent defenseman Jason Garrison, converted on each of its first three chances.
Florida's Scottie Upshall expressed no surprise over the trio's quick emergence.
"We've been watching them in practice every day," Upshall said. "Those guys are all talented."
Huberdeau, still shaking butterflies from his first NHL shift, opened the scoring 3:37 into the game by stuffing the puck between Cam Ward's pads for his first NHL goal.
"I thought the defenseman was going to pick me up, and he just left me alone," said Huberdeau, who, as the team's top player, had the honor of sporting a red velvet Three Musketeers hat lined white feathers following the game. "That was good for me. I scored because of that."
After the goal, Huberdeau looked like a season pro. He registered five shots and two assists, including a highlight-reel setup on Upshall's power-play tally late in the first.
Huberdeau carried the puck across the blueline, this time drawing the attention of the Hurricanes defense. The rookie deked a couple times in the slot, then slid the puck to Upshall as he reached the right faceoff dot. Upshall said it was Huberdeau's moves that gave him just enough time to get into position.
"I saw him look at me as I came across the blueline," Upshall said. "He made two moves to beat some guys and put it right where I like to shoot it. It was just a case of letting him do his magic and putting it on net."
Kovalev, meanwhile, turned defenseman Brian Campbell from setup man to sniper.
The 39-year-old Kovalev settled the tempo of the power play, dishing passes back and forth with Campbell, who ultimately converted on a one-timer for his second power-play goal. Prior to Saturday, Campbell had just one two-goal game in his career.
Campbell, whose passes helped Garrison record a 16-goal campaign in 2011-12, found himself wondering if he might match his former teammate's feat with the Russian at his side.
"I'm definitely going to be texting [Garrison] tonight," Campbell said.
"Alex is unbelievable to watch," Upshall said. "If you ask anyone in our league who the most talented player has been over the last 10 years, its Kovalev. The things he's able to do for the younger guys on the team and to watch his playmaking skills is awesome."
Prior to the game, Florida raised just its second banner in team history. The event lasted all of 30 seconds, with a little flash of light and smoke billowing from the rafters while The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" played over the arena speakers.
It marked the first time since Oct. 8, 1997 Florida took part in such a ceremony. The Panthers, fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, opened the year 8-0-4.
Florida captain Ed Jovanovski, a second-year pro during that first ceremony, doesn't think opponents will be caught off-guard going forward.
"We'll take this win," Jovanovski said. "We know it's going to be a grind. You have to start somewhere and it was nice to start tonight."
For one evening, though, the Panthers may have caught everyone by surprise.