What to Watch For in Thursday’s Home Opener

The Panthers play their first home game of the 2018-19 season tomorrow night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ll be doing so without the services of Roberto Luongo and a handful of other depth players who are still on the shelf. But that shouldn’t lower expectations or anticipation for tomorrow night’s home opener.  The Panthers were a dominant home team last year and there is no reason to believe that won’t continue this season. That begins tomorrow night.

The Panthers come into their first game at BB&T Center off a long break since their season-opening shootout loss at Tampa Bay this past Saturday. The Panthers played a very solid game but suffered some injuries that could linger for some time. Fortunately, the front office spent the off-season preparing for this even if it was not supposed to be this early. The Panthers have enough depth to still launch themselves into one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference but it begins with solid play at home. As we saw with Jacob MacDonald, early opportunities have been created for players and there are certainly several points of interest starting tomorrow night. So here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Panthers play their first game in Sunrise this season.

Play of James Reimer and Co.

Perhaps the biggest concern among Panthers’ fans right now is the injury suffered by Roberto Luongo in the game against Tampa Bay. He will miss 2 to 4 weeks with what is being labeled a “knee strain.” More on that here. While it is understandable to be concerned when you lose your star goaltender, the Panthers have a backup in James Reimer who has proven to be a very good spot starter who can handle a heavy workload at any given time. Everyone is well aware that Luongo has had injury problems in the past and in those lengthy stretches, Reimer has performed admirably. It will be interesting to see if Reimer can get off to a hot start and keep a good Blue Jackets team from lighting up the scoreboard early. It is especially important that they perform well against fringe playoff contenders like Columbus who barely beat the Panthers to a wild card spot last year. They will likely be direct competition again this year. Michael Hutchinson will be the backup until Luongo returns. He is a proven veteran as a third goalie. It is worth noting that Hutchinson had 44 saves on 46 shots in his Thunderbirds debut on Saturday night. 

5 Forward Power play

The Panthers will roll out a top power play unit consisting of all forwards. This relegates elite power play specialist, Keith Yandle to the second unit. It seems fans are torn on this one, especially after the five forward group gave up a game-tying short-handed goal last game. But there are far more positives to this than negatives and it is not close to time to pull the plug. The current top unit allows much more offensive creativity from Sasha Barkov which he simply did not have when parked in front of the net as Yandle ran the show. The current setup allows for much more free flowing offense although it will take time. It is also comforting to know that the one forward you have back on defense is Barkov who is, by all standards, one of the very best defensive forwards in the world. He could probably line up as a defenseman any given night and be good enough to play in the top two pairings.

The all-forward alignment is also a bit of bait in itself. Penalty killers may feel they can take more chances knowing that there is no D-man back. The Panthers can surely capitalize on those risk takers. Another aspect that is totally overlooked is how much Keith Yandle will be able to help the second unit. He immediately transforms the second unit into an offensive threat. Aaron Ekblad should be one of the main beneficiaries of Keith Yandle joining his power play group. Expect an uptick in his PP numbers. It should be worth watching to see how well the new power play lines perform against the Blue Jackets group. The pressure is on to produce on special teams.

Top Six Production and Active Defense

Two areas of note that seem to be much improved are the skill of the top six and the offensive activity of the defense. You could see it in preseason but against the Lightning on Saturday the top six created countless chances and the defense could be found jumping into the rush, stepping up behind forwards, pinching down on the boards to keep the puck in the zone and most importantly, getting back on defense. Mike Matheson and Aaron Ekblad looked especially confident in joining the rush, and Jacob MacDonald scored a goal from well below the blue line. It’ll be important for them to continue their aggressive play in a high scoring Eastern Conference. The top six’s newest weapon, Mike Hoffman looked great against the Lightning. Look for him to break through against Columbus. The Panthers have a superior top six compared to Columbus. But the Panthers were unable to solve Tampa goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy more than once. It won’t get much easier with Sergei Bobrovsky in goal for Columbus. The top six will need to produce so expect at least a goal or two from lines one and two.

Debut of Juho Lammiko

He may not be a big name or a top prospect, but it is always exciting to see a young player get his first crack at the big time. Following a fantastic training camp and an upper-body injury to Derek Mackenzie on opening night, Juho Lammiko was called up to the Panthers following his only game in Springfield this year. He will likely make his debut tomorrow night as the fourth line center in place of Mack. He adds youth and grit to a fourth line that hasn’t seen much youth in some time. It is a big moment for him especially in a home opener. It’ll be fun to see how he does against the heightened competition of regular season NHL action. He has spent a couple years in the AHL so he should be able to make the transition. You always like watching a young player in his debut to see if he’ll have that magic moment where he scores his first goal, much like Jacob MacDonald on Saturday.

Opening Night Crowd and Atmosphere

The crowd and energy in the building tomorrow night should make for a playoff atmosphere for the Panthers. I can’t remember the last time there was this much excitement and hope for this fan base. Expectations are high and it should make for a raucous crowd even for a weekday game. Players talk all the time about the importance of fans getting behind the team and tomorrow is the first chance for fans to show the team that they have that support. The home opener last year was one of the most intense and energetic Panther crowds I have seen at BB&T Center. And everyone remembers the home opener three seasons ago that turned into a party as the Panthers ran the Philadelphia Flyers out of the building. This year, the opening night crowd should be no different and it should make for a pretty special night. 

As always, thanks for reading!