Florida Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, center, introduced himself to the Southeast Division with a goal and 2 assists in his professional debut at age 19 last night. - Joel Auerbach
Rookies score and veterans shine while many of the divisions biggest stars come up empty. Plus a look at what's ahead for all five teams this week as they seek to find their top form with not a moment to lose.
The opening weekend of the 2013 NHL season got off to a rousing start coast to coast, and for the five teams in the Southeast Division, the numbers were healthy both on and off the ice. While selling out the 15,004 seats in Winnipeg is a given, getting over 19,000 tickets sold in both Florida arenas is worth noting, defying the speculation that the lockout could destroy the sport's momentum in non-traditional markets. Of course, we're only one game in.
Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Washington Capitals 3
On the ice, Tampa Bay debuted their new goaltender, youngster Anders Lindback. The lanky Swede held on to win against the Washington Capitals Braden Holtby, who got the start over Michal Neuvirth. Holtby made his reputation with a remarkable showing in last spring's playoffs. Last night, the netminder, who played only 7 regular season games last year, surrendered six goals on 34 shots, including three in the third period.
Falling star Alex Ovechkin did not contribute any points for the Caps, while last year's 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos notched 2 assists. Gritty depth forward Joel Ward, a teammate of Lindback's in Nashville two seasons ago, led the Caps with 2 goals, neither pretty, from close range.
Like many an NHL graybeard last night, Martin St. Louis made a splash chipping in two goals of his own, and was named the NHL's third star (behind Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr) for his efforts. Twenty-three year old rookie Cory Conacher, who was part of last season's outstanding AHL championship season for the Norfolk Admirals, also picked up his first NHL goal, tacking on an assist for good measure.
This was Washington's Adam Oates first outing as a head coach. Postgame, he assigned the disappointing showing to lack of conditioning, frequent penalties and rough spots that come with a new system. Asked about goaltending , he answered, "You know what, I don't fault Holts at all on the goals..." The Washington Times has more from Oates here. Still, one wonders if he'll start the more seasoned Neuvirth next time out.
For more on the game from the Bolts side, Raw Charge has you covered with several great write-ups here.
Looking ahead, the Caps home opener will be Tuesday, another SE divisional match up, when the Winnipeg Jets come to town. After that, the Caps host the Montreal Canadiens Thursday and then head to Newark where they face the Eastern Conference Champions New Jersey Devils Friday.
The Lightning head to Long Island for their next game, Monday afternoon, then on to Raleigh Tuesday, to get their first look at the upgraded offense of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Bolts wrap up their week Friday night back home hosting the Ottawa Senators.
Florida Panthers 5, Carolina Hurricanes 1
It was two newcomers bringing their talents to Sunrise that embarrassed the Hurricanes All-Stars last night. Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in 2011, scored early in the first and added two assists. Another surprise was 39-year-old Alex Kovalev, back in the NHL after spending a season in Moscow. GM Dale Tallon signed him to a one-year deal only this past Thursday. Not to be outdone by a 19-year-old, the well-traveled winger put up a 1-2-3 scoring line of his own.
Defenseman Brian Campbell contributed two power play goals, both laser slapshots that beat Cam Ward high corner. This should be a welcome sight for the Panthers faithful given Jason Garrison departing for Vancouver's greener pastures last summer.
For Carolina, the lofty expectations on Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and new arrivals Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin came crashing down to earth last night. They skated hard, and had moments that looked promising, but in the end, they failed to connect. It was the fourth liner Patty Dwyer who broke the 5-zip shut-out midway through the game when he was set up perfectly by Joni Pitkanen from the left point. There was no further scoring by either team in the final 30 minutes of play, as the Hurricanes eventually seemed to settle in and find their rhythm, if not the back of the net.
Jose Theodore, at 37, gave up just one goal on 42 shots from the Canes, 17 of which came in the middle frame. Cam Ward looked rusty at best, surrendering four goals on 12 shots in the first before he was relieved by Dan Ellis at the first intermission. Ellis has been a standout in AHL play for Charlotte this past fall and earned the back-up job over Justin Peters (while allowing Canes GM Jim Rutherford to trade Brian Boucher to the Flyers for a minor league forward and a bag-of-pucks, the moment the lockout ended.)
For a review of the Great Day for Hockey in Miami, George Richards of the Miami Herald has several reports beginning with the raising of the Division Champions banner at BB&T Center at his blog On Frozen Pond. Our colleagues at Litter Box Cats have some insight and enthusiasm here as well: Florida Panthers Trounce Carolina Hurricanes 5-1.
For the Canes perspective, be sure to check out this astute Game Analysis: Hurricanes At Panthers from Canes Country which includes well-deserved praise for second-year players Justin Faulk and Drayson Bowman.
As mentioned above, the Canes host the Bolts Tuesday. Continuing the theme of hockey's popularity in the Southeast post lockout, the game sold out in a matter of hours Wednesday and is now SRO. The Canes complete their first week with a home-and-home vs the Buffalo Sabres Thursday and Friday. Expect Ward to start Tuesday, but don't be surprised if Muller elects to go with Ellis in Buffalo.
The Panthers have a ridiculously heavy schedule to open this compressed season, playing five games in eight days, with international travel. The four games left this week are outside the Division, and include the Ottawa Senators twice (home-and-home), the Canadiens, (in Montreal), before they finish the week at home vs the Philadelphia Flyers next Saturday. That's 10% of their season right out of the chute and could give us a good indication on whether they will be able to repeat as Division champions in 2013.
Ottawa Senators 4, Winnipeg Jets 1
They might have seemed invincible at home last season, but the Winnipeg Jets were the only home team in the Southeast to come up empty in their season opener yesterday. Multi-faceted Dustin Byfuglien opened the scoring, but Sens Norris Trophy winning Erik Karlsson picked up right where he left off last season with a goal and 2 assists, and the early lead for scoring by defensemen. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, having signed a five-year $19.5 Mil contract last June, underwhelmed, with Coach Claude Noel describing Pavelec's performance frankly: "I think he would like to have had a little bit better game."
We'll have a better look at the former Atlanta Thrashers and whether they bring anything to make them relevant to the Southeast Division race when they play Tuesday night vs Washington at the Verizon Center. Before that, the team makes a quick stop in Boston for a Monday matinee vs the Bruins. Then Washington, before they return home to Manitoba, hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night. Given those opponents, we'll know far more about Winnipeg's compete level by next weekend.
To read more about our Canadian cousins, and the requisite wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and congratulations to the Winnipeg fans for their undying commitment to NHL Hockey, no matter how lousy their team, check out this superb round-up of the Winnipeg Jets Morning Papers at Illegal Curve Hockey.
For now, right out of the gates, these are the early Southeast Division standings.