Hungry Panthers set for home opener against Maple Leafs

There will be good vibes all around, with pleasant memories of a not-so-distant past, when the Florida Panthers face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday in their home opener at Sunrise, Fla.

“I’ve been waiting for this game in particular all summer,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “I can’t wait to see the reception that the fans show us.

“Hopefully, we can put on a good show for them.”

Florida, which went 1-2-0 during its season-opening road trip, will be surrounded by its faithful after last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Florida eliminated Toronto in five games during the second round of the playoffs in May.

Panthers center Sam Reinhart, who beat Toronto in Game 3 of last year’s playoff series with his overtime goal, is off to a fast start in the current campaign.

In three games, Reinhart has three goals and an assist. Two of those goals were deflections in Florida’s 4-3 win over the host New Jersey Devils on Monday night at Newark. N.J.

“(Reinhart is) one of the smartest players in the league,” Panthers center Aleksander Barkov said. “He has that stick that suits him well in front of the net.

“He can do whatever he wants with that stick. He touches pucks, makes plays.”

Tkachuk leads the Panthers in assists with four. Evan Rodrigues leads Florida in points with five (two goals, three assists), and Sergei Bobrovsky has been the goalie for all three games, sporting a 3.42 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage.

Thursday could mark a matchup of goalies from Russia between Bobrovsky and Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov, who is 2-0-0 with a 4.42 goals-against average.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares lead Toronto with six points each. Matthews tops the team in goals (six) and Tavares has the most assists (five).

Only eight Leafs players – including Matthews, Nylander and Tavares – were with the team during the 2022 playoffs. The rest of the cast has changed, and the Leafs are now a harder-edged team with the addition of veteran players such as the 36-year-old Ryan Reaves, John Klingberg, 31, Tyler Bertuzzi, 28, and Max Domi, 28.

Still, the Leafs were outplayed on Monday night in a 4-1 home loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

“We were sloppy with the puck in the first period,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We got beat in transition in the second.”

By then, the Leafs trailed 3-1.

The Panthers also have experienced some player turnover. They have used 12 new players so far this season.

That list includes defenseman Niko Mikkola, who scored on Monday.

Mikkola, who played for the New York Rangers last season, might not have been with the Panthers in 2022-23 but has completely bought into the inspiration from last season’s near miss while advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“These guys (the Panthers) made a great run last season,” Mikkola said. “They are hungry to go all the way.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice said his team’s chemistry will have to be monitored, especially in the early going.

“We got to be a very close team last year, and then (a bunch of) new guys showed up,” Maurice said. “The new guys don’t say much because they’re new guys.

“This team is quieter than what I’m used to, but we’re starting to have fun.”