NASHVILLE — When the Florida Panthers visit the Predators on Saturday afternoon, things will come full circle, in a way, for Nick Cousins.
Cousins, 29, will play his 500th NHL game while visiting a city he spent the past two seasons playing in.
This will be Cousins’ first game in Nashville since leaving the Predators last summer to sign with the Florida Panthers.
Cousins joined the Predators after helping the Vegas Golden Knights get to the Western Conference final in 2020, scoring five points in 17 playoff games.
”The turning point of my career was probably when I was in Vegas, when I was in the bubble,’’ Cousins said. “I established myself as a reliable two-way player and I think I brought that with me to Nashville.”
He parlayed the success he had with the Golden Knights in the 2020 COVID bubble into 40 points in 120 regular season games and two goals in seven postseason games while in Nashville.
Cousins then signed a two-year deal with the Panthers and has become a fixture in the team’s bottom six.
It has not come without adversity, however.
Cousins caught COVID just as Florida began its training camp and it set him back for the first month of the season.
“I didn’t skate for five or six days and that’s tough, especially during training camp when you are still kind of getting your legs underneath you,” Cousins said.
“I didn’t really have my legs under me in the first couple games and then I got scratched and then after that I played with a chip on my shoulder and a little bit of attitude in my game. I think it has helped.”
Florida coach Paul Maurice started Cousins out centering the team’s fourth line but transitioned him back to his natural position on the wing after taking him out of the lineup for three games.
That’s also around the time Eric Staal officially signed with the team.
”He was put in a position that was not his best and because of that, he came out of the lineup,” Maurice said.
“When he got put back in on the wing he got a little bit better but what has really happened is that [Ryan] Lomberg, Staal and he have something going on.”
While injuries and lineup shakeups have separated that line at times, Maurice has used it as an energy trio which has shut down teams defensively.
”I would like if I can keep that line together because there’s a chemistry there and sometimes that’s it,” Maurice said.
”Sometimes you can sit around and have a grindy year and things not be good and then you’ll get it. You’ll get the one centerman that gets you the puck in the right spots and all of the sudden you are a different player.
”I would say the same thing about Lomberg, too, because he’s come off the fourth line and onto our third because he has been a pretty dynamic guy. He looks good and he looks fast.”
Cousins bounced back from his early-season woes once paired with the two and is now at 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) and is eight points from his career high with 24 games to go.
He usually plays alongside Lomberg and Eetu Luostarinen when the team is at full-strength and the line has continued to be one of Florida’s most defensively-reliable lines.
“We play a similar style,” Cousins said of Lomberg.
”I think his speed is obviously a big factor for other teams; he pushes their D back and he does a lot of little things that go unnoticed. It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”
Given the roadblocks Cousins faced coming in, it was Florida’s locker room — spearheaded by captain Sasha Barkov’s leadership and the personalities of the room, like Lomberg — that helped him adjust to life as a Panther and reach 500 games in the NHL.
“The guys have been really good and I think it starts with Barky,” Cousins said.
”He’s a tremendous leader, tremendous person and he made me feel comfortable right away. And the guys in the locker room are pretty easy going guys and it’s really easy to fit in here. It’s a tight knit group here and the transition off-ice and in the room has been awesome.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT NASHVILLE PREDATORS
- When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
- Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Sun, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5 FM-2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 21-12-6, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Anaheim at Florida, Monday, 1 p.m.