Two scoring flurries lead Florida Panthers to season-opening win over Chicago Blackhawks

Jordan McPherson
·4 min read

It took the Florida Panthers some time to get the offense going on Sunday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. That’s to be expected when nearly half of the 20 players on the active roster for the first game of the season are new to the team and there were all of 11 practices and no preseason games to get acclimated with each others.

There were the seven new forwards — five acquired in the offseason and two rookies looking for their opportunity to break out in the NHL. At least one new face is on each of Florida’s four forward lines.

There were two new defensemen, including one claimed off waivers just six days before Opening Night — a season opener that was delayed three days after their first two scheduled games of the season were postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Dallas Stars organization.

And, for good measure, the Panthers had their backup goaltender in net with Sergei Bobrovsky opening the season with a non-roster designation.

“It’s gonna take some time to get used to each other,” said forward Carter Verhaeghe, part of a new-look top forward line with fellow newcomer Anthony Duclair and established Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov.

How much time exactly? About one period.

Florida scored two goals within five minutes of the second period, held off a Chicago comeback bid and had a rookie score the game-winner early in the third period for a 5-2 win at the BB&T Center. The Panthers (1-0-0) are now 9-0-2 all-time when they open a season at home. Florida and Chicago (0-3-0) will play at the BB&T Center again on Tuesday to complete their first of four two-game sets this season as part of the NHL’s restructured regular-season to minimize travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rookie Eetu Luostarinen, acquired by the Panthers from the Carolina Hurricanes last season as part of the Vincent Trocheck trade, scored the go-ahead goal with 3:15 into the third period when he took a feed in the slot from Verhaeghe and buried a shot past goaltender Collin Delia. Patric Hornqvist, a 13-year NHL veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion who the Panthers acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins in September, gave the Panthers an insurance goal less than three minutes later with a slap shot from the right circle. Jonathan Huberdeau, who also had two assists, closed scoring by tipping in a pass from Barkov on the power play with 3:05 left in regulation.

It backed up Florida’s early-scoring from the second period, when defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle found the back of the net following a scoreless opening stanza.

Ekblad scored with a slap shot from the right circle off the opening draw of the second period to give the Panthers a 1-0 edge 12 seconds into the frame.

Yandle, who extended his Iron Man streak to 867 consecutive games, scored his 100th career goal about five minutes later when he took a pass from Huberdeau in the left circle and fired into an open net with Delia out of position.

Yandle’s consecutive games streak is the longest active streak in the NHL and fourth-longest in league history. The streak dates back to since March 26, 2009.

But until the second half of practice on Saturday, it looked as if Yandle’s streak was going to come to an end.

For the bulk of the Panthers’ final week of practice, he was skating in a second group with the bulk of Florida’s taxi squad for consecutive practices, a sign that he would probably not be used on game day. There have even been reports about if the Panthers would ask Yandle to waive the no-trade clause in his contract and put him on the trade block.

“It’s a tough situation,” coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday morning about Yandle. “... He handled it to move forward. He controlled what he could control and that’s make himself his best and as ready as possible.”

Chris Driedger, starting in place of Bobrovsky, stopped 23 of 25 shots that came his way and made a handful of high-end saves. Alex DeBrincat broke the shutout 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.

Luostarinen put Florida ahead for good 22 seconds later.