It’s Hockey Season….Let’s Go!!


Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Autumn has arrived here in Boston and I cannot seem to wipe off this s**t eating grin that has taken up residence on my face. I’m smiling because its October which is arguably one of the best sporting months of the year. Every year is the same but for some reason the multitude of options available never fail to surprise. When the wind grows brisk, the trees explode into color and everyone becomes obsessed with pumpkin flavored beverages; that’s when you know it is October, a great month to be a sports fan.

Let’s quickly run down the list. The NFL is in full swing which means we get to gorge ourselves on beer, wings, head injuries and stomach churning controversies. The MLB postseason is underway, which for me is the most nostalgic of sporting spectacles, taking me back to my youth where baseball’s playoffs were the only thing that mattered. And hell, I’m not bothered by the low q-rating of the teams remaining, I would watch the Albany Diamond Dogs take on the Dorchester 50+ Men’s Softball Team if the matchup came with all the bells and whistles of Fall baseball. Basketball is around the corner which means plenty more of this, this and this. The list goes on and on, with the EPL and MLS for those of you still sipping that World Cup Jungle Juice and there is more college football than one could ever hope to follow. (quick side note: I saw Ian McCoshen outside of a BC football game promoting BC hockey with his teammates. From that brief scouting trip, I can confidently say that he looked ready for a big season, more to come…)  Finally, and most importantly, Florida Panthers hockey is back!! (How’s that for burying the lead?)

The excitement of a potentially successful Florida Panthers season usually has about a two-weeks or so expiration date. Usually the season goes something like this. As if not satisfied enough with disappointing early in October, the Cats jumped ahead of schedule by putting together a thrilling winless preseason. But as they say, the preseason means next to nothing so don’t hang your heads just yet. Plenty of teams throughout history have proven the preseason’s insignificance. Just look at the 1990 Buffalo Bills, they went 0-4 in the preseason only to cobble together a 13-3 regular season record that was capped off with a trip to the Super Bowl. WE COULD BE JUST LIKE THE BUFFALO BILLS!!!

In all seriousness, there are a lot of things to like about this year’s Panthers team and their chances for the playoffs or at the very least for respectability. From the top down, the Cats look like a team that can make some noise in the East. Gerard Gallant looks like a solid hire, as do his two new assistants Mike Kelly and Mark Morris. Gallant’s calling card has been his experience and success coaching young players (most notably post-sophomore slump breakout candidate, Jonathan Huberdeau), but in the early going he has also shown a deft touch handling his veterans as exemplified by his selections for team captains. 37-year-old newcomer Willie Mitchell will wear the “C” while the “A’s” will go to newcomers Derek MacKenzie (33) and Dave Bolland (28) and incumbents Brian Campbell (35) and Scottie Upshall (31). With Roberto Luongo in net and plenty of steps forward expected of the Panthers’ endless summer contingent of young’ns, there is a lot to be excited about this Fall. (And as long as this fall does not include a nine-game winless streak and a coaching change, I think we can call it a success).

Let’s get to the action on the ice shall we? First off, if you could pick two Panthers for whom goals in the first game would do the most good, I would imagine Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson would both have to be near the top of that list. Last season Huberdeau struggled mightily to find the back of the net, scoring just nine times in 69 games. For the former third overall pick, getting off to a hot start early this season is paramount. Gudbranson on the other hand has never really contributed much on offense as he had scored just six goals in 170 regular season games prior to last night. While he has steadily improved his defensive and physical game, the Panthers would love to get some steady offensive production out of their 2010 first round pick. Last night was a good start.

Speaking of young defensemen, I am amazed that we are this far in and I am just getting to Aaron Ekblad. The number one pick in this summer’s draft made his  NHL debut last night and recorded two shots and his first career point (an assist) while clocking in at 19:05 TOI, fourth most on the team. Most defensemen take a while to adjust to the NHL level and while Ekblad is sure to battle through his share of rookie growing pains, one just gets the sense that the Windsor, Ontario native is much further along the learning curve than most first year d-men. Ekblad looked great last night (and no I am not referring to that hair) pairing up with Brain Campbell and even receiving some time on the Cats power play. It may take some time for him to get a handle on the finer points of defense at the NHL level, but his offensive game already looks fully formed. Against the Bolts, Ekblad showed a knack for finding open space to unleash his devastating shot. If he can stay healthy, Ekblad has the chance to put up some serious offensive numbers especially with Campbell as a defensive partner. With Campbell quarterbacking the offense and drawing most of the pressure, all Ekblad has to do is park himself in a good shooting position and Soup will be sure to find him.

There weren’t just new faces on the ice. The broadcast booth received a makeover as well. Making his triumphant return to South Florida, Denis Potvin is back in the Fox Sports booth providing color commentary alongside Steve Goldstein. Potvin is resuming the role that he held from the team’s inception in 1993 through the 2008-09 season. During his time in-between stints with the Cats, Potvin worked calling games for the Senators. Those partaking in the “Denis Potvin calls the Florida Panthers the Ottawa Senators drinking game” were sorely disappointed as Potvin only slipped up once in the first period, hardly enough to get a good buzz on. Improbably however, Potvin did mention that the Tampa Bay Lightning were the best possession team in the East last season. Is this a sign that Potvin may be bringing some advanced stats to the broadcast? Maybe a ‘Potvin possession drinking game” is in order. We could be crushing Potvin Possession Tequila Sunrises all season!! (Although it should be noted that the Bolts finished sixth in the East in Corsi For % in 5-on-5 situations (just ahead of the Panthers) so maybe we will have to wait for the advanced stats revolution to catch hold in the broadcast booth.)

Finally, when it was all said it done, last night has to be seen as a pretty substantial success for the Panthers. The Lightning were the darlings of the hockey media all offseason and they have been labeled by many as serious Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers are not dealing with such lofty expectations, so grabbing a point on the road against a tough team playing their home opener in front of a jacked up home crowd is a pretty good result for the Cats. It is even better when you consider the fact that the Panthers had just two penalties compared to seven for Tampa. One could make a case that tonight, the Panthers were the better team at even strength so if Florida can cut back on their trips to the box (or not get hosed by the refs) they should be competitive on a nightly basis. Of course, the Cats were okay at even strength last season but abysmal on special teams and we know where that gets you, the number one pick! Florida went 0/2 on the man advantage last night but Huberdeau’s goal did come on a delayed penalty call with the Panthers sporting the extra man, so it was kind of like a power play goal. After last season’s historically bad power play, that semi-man-advantage goal is a good sign.

Its silly to make conclusions after one game so I will just say that Panthers looked fine last night. They played hard, the new guys contributed, and they didn’t squash the early October optimism just yet. The only thing threatening to wipe out my smile last night was having to watch Radko Gudas take runs at Panthers skaters all night. I cannot wait for the inevitable Thornton-Gudas tussle.