Fans of the Panthers had waited almost nine months to watch their team return to the ice. On Saturday, they were rewarded in high style for the long delay.
The Panthers, who hadn’t played since losing in Game 7 of last year’s playoffs on April 27, scored four goals in the opening period and rolled to a 5-1 victory over visiting Carolina.
Florida seemed to thrive on the excitement of opening night, one where the franchise’s first divisional championship banner was unveiled in front of a sold-out crowd announced at 19,688 at BB&T Center.
The Panthers, a team that was scoreless in their own 40-minute scrimmage last week, torched Carolina’s Cam Ward by scoring four goals off 12 shots in the first. Ward was on the bench to start the second as the Panthers easily beat the Hurricanes for the sixth time in the past seven tries.
“I guess we saved some goals,’’ said Brian Campbell, who scored twice on the power play in the first period.
Scoring wasn’t a problem for the Panthers on Saturday as newcomers and familiar faces all contributed to the blowout.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida’s highly touted 19-year-old winger, got the party started by scoring off a slick pass from Peter Mueller 3:37 into the season.
Not only did Huberdeau match Stephen Weiss by scoring in his NHL debut, but he did so on his first shot.
“You saw a pretty good snap shot of his skill set,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “That was a pretty impressive debut, to say the least.’’
Said Huberdeau: “That made me a little less nervous for the rest of the game.’’
Huberdeau, the third pick of the 2011 draft, teed off on a pass from the backboard by Mueller.
Mueller, centering that second line in place of the injured Marcel Goc, was one of three players on that line reached the scoresheet.
Alex Kovalev, the 39-year-old who played in Russia last year, knocked in his 429th career goal in his 1,303rd NHL game off a pass from the fresh-faced Huberdeau in the second to give Florida a 5-0 lead.
Kovalev got the secondary assist on Huberdeau’s goal as that line racked up two goals and seven points in its debut.
The Panthers didn’t waste much time in making it 2-0 as Campbell walked in on Ward after picking off a Jiri Tlusty clear on a power play.
Campbell, who led the league in ice time last season and was tied for second among defenseman in scoring, got his second goal 10 minutes later on an extended Florida power play by whipping a shot from outside the left circle for his first two-goal game since 2005.
Florida continued its power play dominance by getting its third goal of the period with the advantage as Scottie Upshall — who scored twice in 26 regular-season games last season — scalded one past Ward from the right circle to make it 4-0 with 2:33 left in the first.
With a nice lead, the Panthers’ defense was actually pressed into service as the Hurricanes came hard at goalie Jose Theodore in the final 40 minutes.
Florida made it 5-0 less than four minutes into the second when Kovalev scored his first NHL goal since 2011. The Hurricanes finally found a way to beat Theodore as Patrick Dwyer scored midway through the second.
Theodore, who won 22 games for the Panthers last season, made 41 stops as he took Game 1 of 2013. Carolina outshot the Panthers 17-9 in the second period but still went into the second break down four goals.
“It was a 5-1 game, but when you break it down, they could have come back,’’ Theodore said.
The Panthers were playing a little short-handed as top-line winger Kris Versteeg left Friday’s workout with an apparent groin injury and defenseman Mike Weaver sustained a slight concussion during Wednesday’s scrimmage.
Dineen said the crowd’s enthusiasm was most welcomed.
“Kris Versteeg walked in about 30 minutes before the game and said. ‘It’s a madhouse out there,’ ’’ said Dineen, whose team visits Ottawa on Monday in the initial road game of 2013. “That filters down. The players feel the buzz and, man, what a turnout we had by the fans. I thought we put on a fairly entertaining show.’’