SUNRISE — Uvis Balinskis scoring his first NHL goal was just another fulfilling point of a long, winding journey through hockey’s professional ranks.
“It’s been really crazy,” Balinskis said following Florida’s 5-2 win over Carolina on Friday night.
“First of all, I was just happy to make an NHL team. Now the first NHL goal? It’s unreal.”
The 27-year-old had nearly given up on playing in the NHL after spending years playing in Czechia, Latvia and Germany, but the Florida Panthers’ pro scouts found him after he led all defensemen in the Czech Extraliga in scoring last season.
All the work paid off with that first NHL goal which gave Florida a 2-1 lead late in the first.
“It’s a dream come true for me, my family and everyone,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
After 10 games without a point, Balinskis finally scored his first NHL goal on a 2-on-1 rush with Matthew Tkachuk.
Tkachuk threaded a pass through traffic to the Latvian defenseman, who pounded it through.
That lead? Florida did not relinquish it as Sasha Barkov added another goal in the second period.
“[Eetu Luostarinen] made a good play and then I ended up 2-on-1 with Tkachuk,” Balinskis said.
“He found me back door and I just needed to score.”
Balinskis’ teammates were thrilled to see his hard work finally pay off.
”Everybody was happy for me,” he said.
“Already, for the last couple of games, everybody was telling me I gotta score one and it finally happened. It’s nice to score it with the home crowd. It was an amazing feeling.”
They saw what it took for him to make the quick adjustment from European hockey to North American hockey in a two-week span.
No matter how effortless he made it look.
“He is a heck of a player and his skill level has surprised me a lot,” Barkov said.
“Starting from training camp, he’s been doing the right things on the ice, playing with so much confidence and for a guy who came here from Europe, he plays so well. There haven’t been many of those guys, so it’s very exciting.”
Added Maurice: “He makes really good plays on the ice that the players appreciate. The players appreciate their teammates in terms of what they accomplish when they take hits. All the hard things that he does really well. So he’s kind of a player’s player. When you get a guy like that who puts one in, everybody’s cheering for him.”
That confidence has not faded even after he was taken out of the lineup for two games.
Maurice’s decision to scratch him had nothing to do with his performance — and he knows it.
After Maurice got a look at Mike Reilly’s game, he went right back to Balinskis and he proved why he earned the starting spot out of camp.
“He’s done everything he possibly can to stay in the lineup and he earned it,” Maurice said.
“He comes over here, completely different league, doesn’t know anybody, training camp is really difficult and then he earned his spot in the lineup. He played his 10 games and I think a bit of a reset almost rejuvenated him.
“He’s been really good for us.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL/Panthers App
- Last Season: Tied 1-1
- This season (Chicago leads 1-0): @Chicago 5, Florida 2 (Nov. 4); @Florida, Sunday
- All-time regular season series: Blackhawks lead 29-18-4, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday at San Jose, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN+)