The Florida Panthers open the 2019 NHL season Thursday when they visit in-state rival Tampa Bay.
October is here, which means the peak of the fall sports calendar.
No changing of the leaves here, but there is a changing of the guard in Sunrise as Joel Quenneville looks for his first win behind the bench for the Cats.
The Panthers also added goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky who will look to improve the overall defense which held the team back last year.
Tampa Bay comes off a disappointing first round playoff sweep against Columbus and will again be a Stanley Cup favorite this year.
The Lightning are the defending Atlantic Division champs (62-16-4, 128 points) and led the NHL in scoring with 325 goals.
Captain Steven Stamkos (45 goals, 53 assists) is the leader of an elite and deep group of forwards.
Tampa’s Trophy Case Grew
MVP Nikita Kucherov is deadly from the right wing and has over 100 points in two straight seasons. Last year’s Hart Trophy winner had 41 goals and 87 assists and is averaging 40 goals over his last three seasons.
Joining Kucherov with postseason honors is reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy in net.
The 25-year old goaltender went 39-10-4 en route to the hardware and those 39 wins led the NHL. He also led the league in 2017 with 44 victories.
Vasilevskiy fell off a cliff in the playoff sweep against the Blue Jackets, losing all four contests and allowing 3.82 goals against per game (2.40 GAA in the regular season).
Tampa Bay excels on special teams and led the NHL in both power play percentage (28.2%) and penalty kill (85.0, tie).
How can the Panthers Compete?
Florida lost all four game to the Lightning by a combined score of 19-10, including a 7-3 blowout last November.
With a new system in place the Panthers communication must be sharp early, especially on the blue line.
The addition of defenseman Anton Stralman who spent the last five seasons in Tampa may give Florida a little insight into their game plan.
The Panthers can light the lamp in their own right, led by Aleksander Barkov on the top line.
We’ve mentioned the elite production of the Panther power play (2nd in 2018 26.8%), Florida will likely need a tally or two with the man advantage to keep up with the Lightning offense.
It should be an uptempo pace on offense, Florida will need to be crisp getting the puck out of their zone and through neutral ice.
Florida must also be disciplined on the power play in terms of defense, they were guilty of lapses leading to shorthanded goals for the opponent last year.
They cannot allow any extra opportunities for the dangerous Lightning attack.
The puck drops Thursday from Amalie Arena, Tampa, FL at 7PM EST.