Game Preview: Florida Panthers vs. Minnesota Wild
Both teams haven’t started the season the way they would’ve liked to, but when the Florida Panthers (2-6-0) host the Minnesota Wild (3-3-2) on Saturday night at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL it should provide some exciting hockey. Florida comes off of their third straight loss after falling to the Boston Bruins in a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat while Minnesota is reeling from their second straight loss after being downed 3-1 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. These two teams will be motivated as they look to take advantage of each other and grab a “W” to get back on track, so look for this game to get chippy.
Minneapolis, MN native and Panthers’ Center, Nick Bjugstad will face his hometown team for the first time in his career. The 6-foot-6, 215 pound, former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher, registered his first career assist on Thursday against Boston in his second game of the season. Bjugstad brings size and strength to the lineup, a trait the Panthers lack and Florida Head Coach Kevin Dineen likes having a right-handed center in the faceoff circle for a change, which has led to Bjugstad getting looks during key situations. Watch for Bjugstad, the 2010 Minnesota Mr. Hockey to play with a purpose against the Wild.
Another Panthers player with Minnesota ties is defenseman, Tom Gilbert. Gilbert spent the previous two seasons as a part of the Wild after being traded by the Edmonton Oilers to his hometown club at the 2012 trade deadline. The Bloomington, MN native was bought out at the end of last season by the Wild before signing a contract with the Panthers during the preseason. Gilbert should be another player to watch in this game, as he may be seeking to exact revenge to the team that basically fired him.
While Minnesota has lacked consistency, they possess a solid group of young and veteran players. Forwards Jason Pominville and Zach Parise are always dangerous, while youngsters like Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter shouldn’t be dismissed either. Minnesota has a solid back-end with 2012-13 Norris Trophy candidate, Ryan Suter and young, stud D-men like Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba. Lastly, the Goaltending tandem of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are both tough to beat when they are on their games, but the big question will be which one of them the Panthers will see. Backstrom hasn’t played a game just yet after nursing a knee injury earlier this season, but could very well make his return to play on Saturday and get the start against Florida.
Minnesota is a strong team that could sneak into the playoffs again like they did last year before being knocked off by the Stanley Cup Champion, Chicago Blackhawks, so despite coming off losses, the Panthers can not afford to take this team lightly.
Florida Goaltender, Tim Thomas faced 40 shots in his return on Thursday against Boston, allowing three goals. Thomas will have to once again do his best to keep a defensively porous Panthers team in the game. This game for Florida is a chance to get their mojo back and gain some confidence. Minnesota is beatable for the Panthers, but in order to do that they have to play a motivated and inspired game, similar to the second and third periods they played against Boston, where they rallied back from a two-goal deficit to tie the game. Last season and this current one so far, the Panthers have the tendency to lose their confidence early in games and find themselves stuck in a hole they dug themselves into. Bad penalties, a lack of shots on goal, insufficient amount of traffic in front of goalies, inconsistent play, a lackluster power play and the inability to outwork the other team have been key reasons why the Panthers are where they are in the standings. Sitting 2-6-0, the Panthers need to find the win column again before they host the Blackhawks on Tuesday.