Panthers look to regain form against Devils

The Florida Panthers, who last season reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1996, are set to visit the New Jersey Devils on Monday night in Newark.

New Jersey is coming off a surprising season in which the Devils set franchise records for wins (52) and points (112).

Florida is off to a slow start, losing its first two games. The trek to New Jersey will culminate a three-game road trip, and the Panthers will finally get their home opener on Thursday against Toronto.

The Panthers’ most recent game was a 6-4 loss at Winnipeg on Saturday.

“We weren’t stout defensively,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

One reason why is that they are missing their two top defensemen — Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour. Both are on injured reserve.

Ekblad had 14 goals last season, which marked the eighth time in nine years that he has reached double figures in that statistic.

Montour last season set career highs with 16 goals and 57 assists, and his 73 points topped Florida defensemen.

Without those two, the Panthers still have a standout defenseman in speedy Gustav Forsling, who last season set career highs in goals (13) and assists (28), playing all 82 games.

In July, the Panthers signed two-time All-Star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 32, to a one-year contract. Once an elite offensive defenseman who scored 55 points, Ekman-Larsson had just 22 points last season.

The Panthers also brought back defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, who last played for Florida seven years ago. Since then, he has played for seven other teams.

In addition, the Panthers brought in Uvis Balinskis and Niko Mikkola. Balinskis, 27, made his NHL debut last week. Mikkola posted a combined six points last season for the Blues and Rangers.

With the back end in flux, the Panthers return several standouts, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forwards Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart.

Meanwhile, the Devils aren’t off to a great start, either. On opening night Thursday, they beat Detroit, 4-3, but Devils coach Lindy Ruff was unimpressed.

“That was not a Picasso,” he said.

On Friday, the host Devils lost a 4-3 shootout to the Arizona Coyotes.

The Coyotes took a 2-0 lead in that game, and Ruff called it a “disappointing” start.

“(Arizona) looked fresher than us,” Ruff said.

But despite all that, the Devils have three points in two games, and they are set to end their season-opening homestand against Florida.

The Devils have so far split their goaltending duties one game each between Akira Schmid (2.77 goals-against average) and Vitek Vanecek (3.00 GAA).

Ruff, who recently received a multi-year contract extension, will rely on his star player, Jack Hughes, 22. Hughes set career highs last year in goals (43), assists (56) and points (99).

Hughes, already a two-time All-Star, is off to a fast start with two goals and three assists.

Other Devils stars include forwards Timo Meier, who totaled 40 goals last season with San Jose and New Jersey; captain Nico Hischier, a terrific two-way player who scored 31 goals last season; Jesper Bratt, who scored 32 goals last season; Tyler Toffoli, who scored 34 goals last season for Calgary; and Dawson Mercer, who scored 27 goals last season at age 21.