For a guy who came thisclose to not playing in the Florida Panthers season-opening game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Keith Yandle certainly played a big role in it.
And isn’t that usually how it works out?
Yandle, who was in jeopardy of being a healthy scratch and seeing his IronMan streak come to a close, fired off an odd-angled shot early in the second period to score and help lift the Panthers to a 5-2 win over the Blackhawks at BB&T Center.
“Obviously getting the win is important, being able to contribute,” Yandle said postgame.
The Panthers have now won nine of their past 11 season-openers on home ice.
Florida and Chicago played a scoreless first period with Aaron Ekblad getting the first goal of the Panthers’ 2021 season 12 seconds into the second with a long shot through traffic.
Not long later, Yandle got on the board with a wrist shot that also found its way past goalie Collin Delia for a 2-0 lead.
Yandle, as one might expect after the week he had, was pretty enthusiastic about the goal.
The Florida defenseman, whom coach Joel Quenneville hinted would not play Sunday as late as Friday, pumped his first as he bounded toward the Florida bench.
Yandle appeared to high-five each of his teammates as he shouted to no one in particular — we think.
”Anytime I score, I am pretty excited and it was a special one,” Yandle said. “That put us up 2-0 and it’s always great to score. Seeing how excited the guys were for me definitely meant a lot.”
Said Quenneville: “I was happy for him, he had a lot of fun with scoring and the bench was lit up. It was one of those moments that you can look back on and have a big smile. I am happy for him and it was a big goal for us.
“But hey: Let’s move forward here. Let’s push each other in a positive way and be the best we can all be for each other.”
By playing Sunday, Yandle’s IronMan streak — the longest active run of consecutive games played in the NHL — ran to 867 which remains fourth all-time.
”For me, I had to be ready to go when I got the chance,” Yandle said. “I think scoring that goal helped solidify the work I put in, being ready to go. Seeing the guys’ reaction, they were real fired up for me. Anytime you get to put on an NHL jersey and represent your team is a special thing.”
Chicago ended up tying the score early in the third period, but Florida got a pair of quick goals — rookie Eetu Luostarinen and veteran Patric Hornqvist scored less than three minutes apart — to give the Panthers some breathing room.
Jonathan Huberdeau made it 5-2 with 3:05 left on a power play goal off a pass from Sasha barkov.
Florida goalie Chris Driedger looked sharp as he started his first NHL opener, stopping 22 shots.
Chicago is now 0-3-0.
Sunday’s game was only the third in the NHL to have fans attend this season (the other two were in Glendale, Ariz.) with the Panthers announcing a crowd of 4,147.
The BB&T Center is limiting capacity to 25 percent for Florida’s home games this season.
”It was great, there were some funny signs out there,” Driedger said. “It was good to see the support from the fans. It’s pretty cool, pretty unique we’re able to do that. It was awesome to have some fans in there.
”The atmosphere was good. It felt like a hockey game.”
— Anthony Stewart (@StuMunrue) January 17, 2021
First period highlights
The Panthers looked like a team playing in their first game after a long, long layoff and the Blackhawks looked like, well, the Blackhawks.
There wasn’t much going on here in the opening period.
Chicago appeared to take its first lead (of any kind) three games into the season when Pius Suter fed a streaking Patrick Kane at 12:32 of the period.
Quenneville didn’t waste anytime challenging the goal as it was obvious Kane was a foot offside. The goal was pulled off and the game was scoreless going into the second.
The Panthers coach gave full credit to video coach andrew Brewer for quickly jumping all over the replay — and said Kane shot him a dirty look over it later.
“Our guys were on it right away,” Quenneville said. “[Ulf Samuelsson] said he saw it but the replay was at my feet instantly. It was one of the first times I ever told a referee ‘that is absolutely offside.’ You knew he was clearly off so we got a break.”
Both teams had a power play chance in the opening period with Florida getting a shot on their one kick at it with Chicago getting three shots.
The Florida penalty killers led by Sasha barkov, Eetu Luostarinen and Noel Acciari held the puck deep in the Chicago zone for a good 40 seconds.
”It definitely is easier when you get some shots to start it off,” said Driedger, who only had to make six saves in the first period.
“It makes it a little more challenging when you don’t see shots for the first however many minutes of the game. That’s the way it is.”
Second period highlights
Aaron Ekblad got things cooking for the Panthers, firing off a shot from inside the blue line that found its way through traffic for a 1-0 lead just 12 second into the period.
Carter Verhaeghe was initially given credit for the goal as it appeared he stuck his stick out and redirected the puck.
NHL officials later gave the unassisted, first goal of the Florida Panthers 2021 season, to Ekblad.
Not long later, Yandle made it 2-0 as he chased down a loose puck off a Jonathan Huberedau rebound, fired it at an odd angle and watched it go through.
The goal was the 100th of Yandle’s career and he was obviously excited about it.
Midway through the period, Yandle was hit with a holding call and he went to the box. Chicago cut into the Florida lead on a power play goal from Alex DeBrincat at 13:16 of the period.
— NHL (@NHL) January 18, 2021
Third period highlights
Chicago’s Connor Murphy — the son of original Florida defenseman and later assistant coach Gord — tied the score 2:53 into the period on a long shot that sailed over Drieder’s glove on a 4-on-4 chance.
Florida had a power play chance snuffed out when Jonathan Huberdeau cut it short when he was called for hooking.
Now tied at 2, Florida went on the attack with Luostarinen getting his first NHL goal as he charged in and one-timed a nice pass from Verhaeghe at 3:15.
A few minutes later, Hornqvist got his first as a member of the Panthers as he threw up a shot from the short wall that appeared to be deflected by a Chicago defender and through.
Huberdeau all but ended things with a power play goal with 3:05 left to give him a three-point night in the season-opener.
George’s Three Stars of the Game: 1. Keith Yandle; 2. Jonathan Huberdeau; 3. Eetu Luostarinen
Up next: Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (FSF, 560-AM)
What to watch: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to make his 2021 debut with the Panthers on Tuesday as the team will have to make a decision on their goalie situation.
As it stands right now, the Panthers appear to have selected Dreidger as the backup to Bobrovsky. Philippe Desrosiers is the taxi squad goalie and that may continue.
There is a thought within the Panthers that Sam Montembeault needs to get some playing time and that probably will not happen in Florida as the No. 3.
So, Florida will keep Montembeault or Desrosiers around — but not both.
One of these two will be headed to the shared AHL team in Syracuse and it could be Montembeault only so he can get some game action with the Crunch.
— The Panthers are also expected to get defenseman Noah Juulsen this week and since the Panthers claimed him off of waivers from Montreal, he will take up the final roster spot.
When Markus Nutivaara is cleared after starting the season (but since cleared) on the COVID-19 protocol list, he will also need a roster spot.
Florida could decide to drop Riley Stillman off the main roster and onto the taxi squad.
Stillman, scratched Sunday night in favor of Yandle, would not need to go through waivers to slide down.
Florida could also move one of its young waiver-proof forwards.
Nutivaara would need to go through waivers to be added to the taxi squad.
— Florida’s alternate captains this season: Hornqvist, Ekblad, Yandle, Huberdeau.