The Florida Panthers will try to build upon a deep playoff run when they take the ice against the Minnesota Wild in the season opener for both teams Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn.
Florida is coming off a season in which it notched 92 points in the regular season, which was good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, before surging in the postseason. The Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final, losing 4-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights in the best-of-seven championship series.
“We’ve got new blood here — guys that are wanting to help get us over the hump, which is great,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “And the guys that are coming back have been waiting for this for months. It starts now.”
It starts against a Wild organization coming off a 103-point regular season, which secured a third-place finish in the Western Conference’s Central Division. Minnesota could not sustain its success in the playoffs, losing 4-2 to the Dallas Stars in the first round.
The abrupt exit did not diminish the team’s goals for this season.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin largely stayed the course instead of revamping his roster. He signed several players to contract extensions, including forwards Ryan Hartman, Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno and goaltender Filip Gustavsson.
“Expectations get higher,” Guerin said. “Each and every year, we grow a little bit, we come together a little bit, we make steps, and because of that expectations get higher. It’s no different this year.
“Our expectation is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s it. That’s our expectation. I don’t care what outside noise says. I don’t care what social media says. I don’t care what anybody says. We have the ability to win the Stanley Cup.”
If that is to happen, Gustavsson likely will play a large role in net. The 25-year-old enjoyed a breakout performance last season, going 22-9-7 with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
Gustavsson is 0-2-1 with a 2.94 GAA and a .900 save percentage in three career games against the Panthers. He is expected to get the start in the season opener ahead of veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Panthers also boast talent in net. Sergei Bobrovsky is scheduled to start Thursday to open what will be his fifth season with Florida and his 14th season overall.
Bobrovsky is 13-3-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .931 save percentage in 17 career games against Minnesota. The 35-year-old has 360 career victories, which is No. 23 on the all-time list.
Tkachuk said he and his teammates are excited to build on last season’s success. He acknowledged that the Panthers could face an early challenge while awaiting injured veterans Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad’s return. Both are expected to be out until mid-December.
“It’s definitely not going to be an easy start for us, but I think we all believe in each other,” Tkachuk said. “We believe in what we’ve built here, and we just want to keep that rolling.”