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Anton Lundell impresses in NHL debut as Florida Panthers beat Penguins

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Anton Lundell Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers center Anton Lundell made his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night in Sunrise. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

When Florida Panthers rookie Anton Lundell took the ice — all alone — for his NHL debut on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he said the only thing on his mind was hoping he wouldn’t fall.

“I was thinking, ‘just don’t step on the pucks on the ice because it would be pretty embarrassing to fall the first lap’,” Lundell said.

“Otherwise, it was pretty fun to be there alone and I was just waiting for when the guys wanted to come.”

But he did a lot more than just failing to fall on his face.

During his long-awaited NHL debut, one which fans have been waiting for since he signed his entry-level contract this past June, Lundell held his own against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Today was a pretty fun day,” Lundell said after Florida’s opening-night 5-4 overtime win.

“I have always been dreaming of playing in the NHL one day, and today I got the opportunity to play. It was pretty cool and I just tried to enjoy it and have fun out there. It was a little bit different. A harder pace. You could see it was not the preseason anymore.”

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Lundell was ready for the pace of play, especially on the defensive end of the ice, blocking two shots while the Panthers only allowed three shots on goal during his 8:22 of 5-on-5 ice time.

“He was awesome on the penalty kill with (Sasha Barkov) there, creating offense on the penalty kill with a great stick,” said Carter Verhaeghe, who scored the winning goal in overtime.

“He was making plays. He came in and played well as a center in the NHL, so you can tell he’s going to be a special player.”

In a game that saw the Panthers take nine penalties, Lundell spent 5:26 of his 15:38 of ice time on the penalty kill, helping the Panthers hold Pittsburgh to 2-of-9 on the power play.

“Yeah, I had a little bit too good of a chance to practice [the penalty kill,]” Lundell said with a grin. “Today we were lucky, we had a good PK, it was a good win, two points.”

One play, in particular, stood out, when he fed Barkov with a no-look, behind-the-back pass that found him right in the slot.

While Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith made the save on Barkov, it was a sign of things to come for Lundell.

“I like the way he plays the game,” Joel Quenneville said. “I like the way he kills penalties, I like him in the faceoff circle, he’s playing against men and it usually takes a player some time to win those battles, but he won some key faceoffs, he got some clears, he has a really good feel for the game.”

Quenneville placed a lot of trust in Lundell, giving him the sixth-most playing time out of any forward on the roster.

Only Barkov, Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett had more time on ice than Lundell did.

While not recording a point in his NHL debut, Lundell is very much like the player he was when he put up 25 points in 26 games in Finland’s top level.

He is playing with confidence, finding the right spots to make plays with-and-without the puck, and is a dominant force defensively.

His first NHL goal could be coming sooner rather than later, and it could be coming on Saturday night when the Florida Panthers take on the New York Islanders at 6 p.m.

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