The Florida Panthers were in a position Thursday they became very familiar with during the early going of last year’s regular season: Outplaying the opponent, but losing the game.
Minnesota Wild goaltender Filip Gustavsson was very much the reason for that, stopping 41 saves in a 2-0 shutout victory on Opening Night in St. Paul.
Only the Panthers handled themselves better than they did in that same situation last season.
After a year of mastering Paul Maurice’s system — one which they went to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights — Florida stuck to it and kept themselves in the game until the very end.
“The difference was that there would be times early in the year last year where we would get down one or two and we took ourselves out of it,” Maurice said after the game.
“I didn’t feel that we did that.”
The numbers tell the same story.
Florida led in shots in all three periods, finishing the game with a 41-21 lead.
They also led in scoring chances (43-18), high-danger chances (17-6) and expected goals (3.68-1.75), per Natural Stat Trick.
The Panthers also finished with 83 total shot attempts with the Wild blocking 26 of them.
“I think it was a little more about us tonight,” Oliver Ekman-Larsson said.
“Getting one or two guys in front of the net to make it a little bit harder for him. But we had 41 shots so I think we gotta score on a couple of them. It’s hard to win hockey games when you don’t score and that’s what it comes down to.”
The Panthers controlled the game from the start, jumping out to a 10-2 lead in shots on goal while having a 5-1 lead in high-danger chances in the first period.
But then the Wild broke the seal.
Brock Faber let loose a wrist shot from the blueline and it beat Sergei Bobrovsky through traffic to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead 7:54 into the game.
It was the rookie’s first NHL goal in his third regular season game.
Mackie Samoskevich was thisclose to getting his first NHL goal, beating Gustavsson with a quick mid-stride wrist shot in the second, but it hit the crossbar and bounced right out of the net.
The 20-year-old finished his NHL debut with two shots on goal in 14:36 of time-on-ice, including just over a minute of power play time.
Samoskevich looked comfortable out there, creating chances with his speed and showcasing his quick wrist shot release multiple times.
He also came the closest to beating Gustavsson all night.
“I thought it took him about 10 minutes to get into the game, which is shorter than what I would’ve thought it would take,” Maurice said.
“He’s a shooter. He gets into those holes, he put one off the bar and he puts the puck where he wants to. It was a good debut for him.”
Florida’s penalty kill got the best of Minnesota on its first two chances on the power play but they could not hold it down on the third.
Just 10 seconds into the man advantage, Joel Eriksson Ek got a hold of a deflected puck in the slot, dragged the puck back to himself and tucked the puck past Bobrovsky to extend the Wild’s lead to 2-0 with 7:04 to go in the first period.
Minnesota appaeared to jump ahead 3-0 two minutes later, with Marco Rossi finishing off a slick no-look feed from Frederick Gaudreau, but it was taken off the board for offside.
Maurice challenged the play for an offside call on the ensuing zone entry and it was quickly taken off the board upon review.
But no matter how much the Panthers pushed in the third, Gustavsson held it down.
The 25-year-old netminder stopped all 15 of Florida’s third-period shots, including a slew of them in the final minutes of the game, to secure a season-opening shutout.
“That’s a good defensive team, they play a good, hard structure and they blocked a bunch of shots,” Maurice said.
“But it’s always the basics of traffic and timing. We’ve got to get the right traffic at the right time but I’m not going to complain about that. [Gustavsson] made some good saves and when your boy plays a game like that, you should have a chance to win.”
Florida added nine new players to its roster since its Game 5 loss in the Stanley Cup Final and played like a cohesive unit.
They will look to build on that as they head to Winnipeg to take on the Jets for Game 2 of the season on Saturday afternoon.
“It doesn’t matter what happened last year,” Bobrovsky said. “We believe in right here, right now. We have new players and now we are building the chemsitry, the trust and the belief in each other. So that’s the process. I thought we put together a good game.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT WINNIPEG JETS
- When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
- Where: Canada Life Center, Winnipeg
- TV: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WAXY 790-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
- This season: Florida @ Winnipeg, Saturday; Winnipeg @ Florida, Nov. 24
- Last season: Winnipeg won 2-0
- All-time regular season series: Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets lead 52-31-8, 5 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at New Jersey Devils, 7 (BSF, 560-AM)