He felt the nerves as he left the dressing room. Who doesn’t have nerves on Opening Night?
He made his way to the ice, to the front of the net minutes before the puck dropped, donning a face mask featuring illustrations of Din Djarin and Grogu (Baby Yoda, as many know him) from Disney+’s “The Mandalorian” and trying to get his routine in place.
The focus wasn’t necessarily on him as the Florida Panthers’ season-opener unfolded against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night.
But Chris Driedger knew how big his role was going to be at the BB&T Center — and how big the moment was for him personally at this stage in his career.
With Sergei Bobrovsky unavailable for Sunday’s season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, still getting into game-shape after being deemed “Unfit to Play” and holding a non-roster designation, Driedger was given starting goaltending duties for the Panthers on Sunday.
Just like he did in spurts last season as Bobrovsky’s backup, Driedger impressed on Sunday. He stopped 23 of 25 shots that came his way, including the final six Chicago fired at him while his offense broke a 2-2 tie with three unanswered goals to close out the game for a 5-2 win.
“I was just trying to get in there and feel comfortable,” Driedger said. “I felt good. I felt relaxed. Other than a couple chances, we locked it down pretty good.”
It was an opportunity that came because Driedger, nearly a decade after he was first drafted, finally has an identified, cemented role at the NHL level.
The Ottawa Senators selected him in the third round in 2012. He signed a three-year entry-level on April 1, 2014, and made his NHL debut on March 26, 2015.
But after played in just three games over three years with Ottawa, Driedger tested free agency. He signed AHL contract with the Springfield Thunderbirds, the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, in July 2018. A year later, he signed a two-year, two-way deal with the Panthers in February 2019 before ultimately emerging as the Panthers’ primary backup goaltender to Bobrovsky.
“It has been a long road for me,” Driedger said Saturday.
It’s finally paying dividends.
His first career start last season was a 27-save shutout against the Nashville Predators on Nov. 30, 2019. He would end up starting 10 more games during the season, going 7-2-1 with a 2.05 goals against average and .938 save percentage.
“Guys got a little bit familiar with him around the net,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought he had a lot of poise, patience. He used his size to his advantage. He kept the game very simple and I thought he really enhanced his opportunity to be an NHL goalie.”
He started the Panthers’ final three games last season before the NHL shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic while Bobrovsky dealt with a lower-body injury. The Panthers went 2-0-1 in those three games (an overtime loss to Boston; wins against Montreal and St. Louis). Driedger gave up just four total goals and recorded a .955 save percentage.
“He played big games at the end of the year last year,” Quenneville said. “He was our go-to guy. He handled a tough situation extremely well. The way he just keeps his composure and his coolness is pretty unique. He doesn’t change it one bit.”
It was more of the same on Sunday. He had limited chances to make plays in the first period, with Chicago having just five shots on goal in the opening 20 minutes. The highlight, early, though, was his stop on a breakaway attempt from Blackhawks center Dylan Strome midway through the first period.
He fought off a flurry of shots early in the second, including making a strong glove save on a Duncan Keith slap shot and then sprawling out to make a diving save on a Phillip Kurashev slap shot about 30 seconds later.
Alex DeBrincat broke up the shutout bid with a power-play goal midway through the second period. Chicago tied the game with a Connor Murphy goal in a four-on-four situation with 17:07 left in regulation.
That’s all Driedger would allow. Twenty-two seconds after Murphy’s goal, rookie Eetu Luostarinen scored a go-ahead goal as part of a three-goal third period for the Panthers.
“It’s just a great feeling to step on the ice in the NHL,” Driedger said.
He’ll get more chances throughout the season, albeit on a case-by-case basis. Bobrovsky, once he is cleared to play, will get the bulk of Florida’s goaltending responsibilities. That’s why he’s being paid $70 million over seven years.
But since Bobrovsky only took part in three team practices during training camp, the Panthers didn’t want to rush him back too quickly.
“We had it in our minds ‘Let’s target Tuesday,’” Quenneville said of Bobrovsky. “He’s on that path right now. He’s ready to go, but I think we’re being cautious and doing thing probably the right way.”
Driedger has handled things the right way as well. And that gave him his opportunity on Sunday.
“Last year was great for me to just come in and play some games, get some confidence and get this team hopefully confident in me,” said Driedger. “I’m just looking to take that forward into this season. [I’ve got those] rookie season jitters out of the way, so hopefully I can just take that energy and momentum and move forward into the season.”