Panthers eager to open season vs. Blackhawks

Blackhawks

After 29 other NHL teams started their seasons this week, the Florida Panthers will finally get their chance Sunday night.

The Panthers, who will play host to the Chicago Blackhawks in Sunrise, have made significant changes since the end of last season. (Blackhawks at Florida, Sunday, January 17, 5:30pm, WGN Radio 720 and our digital streams https://wgnradio.com/on-air/.)

Mike Hoffman, who led the Panthers in goals last season (29), signed with the St. Louis Blues. Evgeni Dadonov, who signed with the Ottawa Senators, scored at least 25 goals in each of the past three seasons and tied Hoffman for the Panthers lead last season in terms of power-play scores (11).

Keith Yandle, who leads all NHL defensemen in assists and power-play points since becoming a regular in 2007-2008, appears to be on the outs with Florida. The 34-year-old has reportedly been told he’s not in the team’s plans and may be a healthy scratch on Sunday, which would snap his streak of playing 866 consecutive games. That’s the longest streak in history for an NHL defenseman.

The Panthers also traded core defenseman Mike Matheson in September.

In addition, starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky won’t play on Sunday as he works his way back in shape. Chris Driedger will start instead.

“A few more practices,” Bobrovsky said, “and I’ll be ready to go.”

The Panthers mainstays are forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad. The biggest offseason acquisitions were forwards Patric Hornqvist, a two-time Stanley Cup champ; Anthony Duclair, who scored a career-high 23 goals last season; and Alex Wennberg, who’s looking to regain his scoring touch. Also, newly acquired defenseman Radko Gudas should help on the penalty kill, and 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett will get a chance at right wing.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have already played two games, but — like the Panthers — they’re looking for their first win of the season. They lost a pair on the road to the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-1 on Wednesday and 5-2 on Friday.

Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton was unhappy with Wednesday’s effort but he saw improvement in the rematch.

“It was an overall better performance,” Colliton said. “I really liked our first period, but we started turning the puck over in the second, basically self-inflicted wounds that allowed them to go up 3-0.”

The Blackhawks will want to clean that up against the Panthers, and that includes Chicago goalies Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban, who have split the first two starts.

In fact, one of the goals allowed by Delia on Friday came off his own turnover.

“I definitely didn’t make the right play,” Delia said. “I didn’t make a good, hard pass, and that’s what happens when you make mistakes like that in your own end.”

The Blackhawks will be less than 100 percent for the Panthers as star center Jonathan Toews remains out. Three other Blackhawks regulars are also out: defenseman Brent Seabrook, left winger Alexander Nylander and center Kirby Dach. Nylander, 22, and Dach, 19, combined to score 18 goals last season, showing themselves as emerging young talents.

That young talent is indicative of a Chicago roster that is three years younger per man than the league average.

The only over-30 exceptions to that youth movement are defenseman Duncan Keith, 37, and right winger Patrick Kane, 32. Keith still leads the team in average time on ice (21:58), and Kane already has one goal after scoring 33 in 70 games last season.

Overall, though, it’s been an unpleasant opening two games for Chicago.

“We’ve lacked execution,” Colliton said. “It’s certainly not the way we wanted to start the year.”

–Field Level Media

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