Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (1-0-0, 2 points) @ Florida Panthers (0-0-0, 0 points)
When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet locally in Pittsburgh, Bally Sports Florida is the away TV, Sportsnet360 in Canada...And my ESPN+ app shows if you have ESPN+ (link here if you want to subscribe through your pals at Pensburgh) you will be able to watch either broadcast feed, provided you are not in the Pittsburgh/Miami local TV markets.
Opponent Track: It’s opening night for the Panthers, let’s hope their legs will be as sleepy as their fellow Floridian team was on Tuesday, eh?
Pens path ahead: After tonight, the Pens enjoy a season-long eight game homestand over the next few weeks. It begins on Saturday with Marc-Andre Fleury and the Chicago Blackhawks coming to town. Then Pittsburgh has a slack week next week with the following game on Tuesday against Dallas and then the Pens get three days off before hosting Toronto next Saturday (10/23).
Season Series: The next PIT/FLA game after tonight is in a few weeks on Thursday November 8th when the Panthers visit the ‘Burgh. From there the two teams part ways for quite a while until Florida comes back to Pittsburgh on March 8th to conclude the three-game season series.
Random fact: The corporate name of the building Florida plays in now is called the FLA Live Arena. I did not know it was called that until about 10 minutes ago.
Random fact II: Jeff Carter has 34 points (15G+19A) in 35 career games against the Florida Panthers, including 10 points (4G+6A) in his last seven games versus them.
SBN Team Counterpart: Check out Litterbox Cats for the latest news to know about the Panthers.
Panthers looking for the next step
After taking a big step and finishing with a 37-14-5 record last season (good for second place in the NHL’s Central Division), the Florida Panthers seem primed for a brighter future ahead. They lost in the first round in six games to the eventual champs in Tampa, which proved to be a tough lesson for a team making their first true playoff appearance since 2016 (Florida appeared in the qualifying round in the 2020 bubble playoffs as a wildcard, where they lost). Overall as a franchise, the Panthers have made the playoffs just three times since 2001. They have not won a playoff series since, ugh, those damn rats in 1996 against the Penguins.
After being an obscure team for so long, Florida is now one of the upstarts and a popular pick for some new blood to become one of the new wave of elite teams in the East, as perhaps some of the powerhouse mainstays get older and eventually decline (BOS, PIT, WSH).
Not just content with current progress, the Panthers made off-season moves to add Sam Reinhart from Buffalo for a future first round pick and prospect. They also signed veteran Joe Thornton. Since the Penguins have played the Panthers, FLA has also picked up Sam Bennett (who scored an eye-popping 15 points in 10 games after a trade earlier this year from Calgary), Carter Verhaeghe (who scored an impressive 36 points in 43 games last season), Anthony Duclair and some guy named Hornqvist.
So, yeah, message received loud and clear, this isn’t the Panther team that a Pittsburgh fan might remember from the hapless bunch last seen by the Pens a few years ago. This team appears to have all the pieces in place to make a move towards being a sustainable successful team that really has never been seen in the history of hockey in Southeast Florida outside of that one flukish run many moons ago in 1996.
Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Sam Reinhart
Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett
Frank Vatrano - Anton Lundell - Patric Hornqvist
Joe Thornton - Eetu Luostarinen - Anthony Duclair
Mackenzie Weegar / Aaron Ekblad
Gustav Forsling / Radko Gudas
Markus Nutivaara / Brandon Montour
Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky or Spencer Knight
Scratches: Ryan Lomberg, Mason Marchment, Olli Juolevi
IR: Noel Acciari
—Ekblad will return to game action for the first time since breaking one of his legs in late March, a heavy loss for Florida down the stretch and in the playoffs. Ekblad is paired beside Mackenzie Weegar, who is one of the better players that no one really talks about but should.
—Forsling is also a player who receives absolutely no press, but had tremendous advanced statistics last season as a quiet but hugely effective player. This is a player Carolina waived at the start of the 2021 season, and by the off-season, he was wisely locked up with a three-year deal worth $2.66 million annually that could prove to be a very beneficial move for the Panthers if Forsling continues his trajectory.
—Florida has made some high-end acquisitions in the past 12 months (Bennett, Reinhart, even Hornqvist) but the growth of some young talent could really take them over the top. The 20-year old Lundell, the 12th overall pick in 2020, is penciled in to make his NHL debut today. 22-year Owen Tippett was the 10th overall pick in 2017 and is coming into his own. And 20-year old goalie Spencer Knight, 13th overall in 2019, is already pushing the $70 million dollar man in Bobrovsky for starting time by flat out playing better than the veteran.
—On top of all that, FLA picked up former fifth overall pick Juolevi from Vancouver in a trade for what could be a very nice change of scenery opportunity for the 23-year old who never was able to find footing in the Canucks’ organization.
Low key player spotlight
Let’s dive a little further on a new segment for a player that isn’t getting a ton of focus, but is certainly worth keeping an eye on. We know Sasha Barkov is legit and Huberdeau is skilled, but let’s go a layer below the obvious leading scorers or best players on the team.
Mackenzie Weegar, 27 and briefly mentioned above, scored 36 points in 54 games last season. Via WAR% has been in the 96th percentile of defensemen over the last three seasons with an even better defensive impact on the games.
Weegar is probably one of the more well-rounded and best three-zone defensemen in the league today, beyond the super star level players. Without Ekblad available for the playoffs, Weegar played a team-high 23:20 per game. That’s incredible growth and development from being a seventh round pick back in 2013 and a player who split time in the ECHL/AHL in his first pro season to improve into one of the hidden gems in the NHL.
And now for the Pens..
Yesterday’s practice Lines
Jake Guentzel - Jeff Carter - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Evan Rodrigues - Kasperi Kapanen
Danton Heinen - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Dominik Simon - Brian Boyle - Sam Lafferty
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Pierre-Olivier Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Probable starting goalie: Tristan Jarry
Scratches: Drew O’Connor (healthy), Mark Friedman (healthy), Sidney Crosby (wrist), Zach Aston-Reese (COVID), Mike Matheson (day-to-day injury)
IR: Evgeni Malkin (knee)
—After the big 6-2 win on Tuesday night, the Pens had three different forward lines and a new defense pair in practice on Wednesday. That’s a positive development, with Guentzel skating in his regular spot on the first line and also working with the top power play group. Mike Sullivan, of course, wasn’t officially declaring yesterday that Guentzel will play tonight, but there’s plenty to read between the lines as far as the team setting up for Guentzel’s return based on practice yesterday.
—Sidney Crosby also practiced and by the coach’s account is “progressing well” but is not expected to play tonight. It is shaping up that Crosby will be back playing early into the upcoming string of home games, perhaps as early as Saturday night, so stay tuned..
—Joseph and Friedman split line rushes with Ruhwedel, so expect Ruhwedel to play tonight, with the decision coming down to playing Friedman again and having four right-handed shots on defense, or going with Joseph for the balance of having three left and right handed shots for the blueline.
Some various accomplishments to track that could be had tonight:
- Jeff Carter is sitting at 399 career goals
- Mike Sullivan is one win away from passing Dan Bylsma with a 253rd win as a Penguin coach
- Jake Guentzel is one game played away from 300 in his career