Greg Cote: Dazzling debut by Florida Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau

01/20/2013 12:00 AM

01/21/2013 12:00 AM

It took Jonathan Huberdeau all of about three minutes and change to properly introduce himself Saturday night, with a flick of the wrist that made the big horn blast and the red light twirl.

Florida Panthers fans had waited four months longer than expected for hockey, for this night, so what was another few minutes to see the first up-close evidence of the franchise’s newest scoring star?

The sport’s return and the NHL debut of Huberdeau — both were worth the wait in a season-opening 5-1 Panthers rout of the Carolina Hurricanes that featured that quick goal and later two assists from the Cats’ 2011 first-round draft pick.

Afterward, Huberdeau wore a red Three Musketeers-style hat with white trim and a white feather, the fey-cavalier look a new Panthers tradition.

“I have no idea why,” said the kid.

It wasn’t a rookie hazing. Turns out the team’s player of the game must wear the distinctive chapeau, an idea started by captain Ed Jovanovski.

Huberdeau is 19, the baby of the team. He could shave with a butter knife. He spent the past three seasons growing, literally and figuratively, in Quebec with the minor-league Saint John’s Sea Dogs.

Saturday, the Panthers unwrapped him like the gift he is supposed to be as an answer to the team’s scoring deficiencies. His goal came on his first career shot.

“For sure I was nervous,” he said afterward. “To score early made me less nervous the rest of the game.”

Said coach Kevin Dineen of his rookie star: “That was a pretty good snapshot of his high-end skill set. A fairly impressive debut to say the least.”

Huberdeau’s break-out was only the freshest and most obvious of all the good stuff happening.

The night could not have gone much better for Florida, especially for a season infamously delayed by a lockout, by tedious labor negotiations that threatened to swallow the season whole and instead sliced the schedule from 82 games to 48.

For the Panthers, it was locked out to locked in.

Locked out to locked and loaded.

Florida hadn’t opened an NHL season at home in seven years but christened this one right.

The Panthers’ 19th season began with the raising of the first division championship banner in club history, and they chased that merriment with more — a comfy victory that swept away any lingering fan resentment over the lockout and had almost 20,000 fans in the Sunrise ice barn partying to a welcome-back vibe.

Division titles might be as common as loose change under the sofa to the Heat, but they are rare accomplishments for our other pro teams, so give the Cats their due and let that banner rise. You celebrate what you can, and this was a good night for that.

Dineen, the second-year coach who spent most of his playing career with Saturday’s opponent, had said before the game that he wanted his team to be “fierce and physical” and “hard to play against.”

The opponent would testify they were all of that Saturday.

Dineen said he wanted fans to leave the arena after games thinking, “We’re a good night out.”

They sure were for openers.

Segue the Cats coming off their first playoff appearance after a 10-season drought with Saturday’s big start to the new season and you could posit that this franchise and its fans haven’t felt better about themselves since that run to the Stanley Cup in 1996.

Florida’s roster is a blend of veteran experience and rising young talent, and that mix showed effectively from the start.

Put it this way:

The five-goal night was book-ended by the teenager Huberdeau and by a player, Alex Kovalev, who is more than twice the kid’s age, turning 40 next month. Kovalev already was skating professionally when Huberdeau was still in a crib.

Brian Campbell had a pair of power-play, slap-shot goals in between, and Scottie Upshall also had a power-play goal, while Jose Theodore was on the other end stopping all but one of 35 Carolina shots.

This night and victory were big because every game’s result gets magnified a little this season with the schedule cut almost in half. And also because Carolina is expected to be a primary challenger to Florida repeating as Southeast Division champ.

More than that, Saturday’s fast start was important because the ice remains a proving ground for this team.

Last year’s division title wasn’t enough.

Outside belief in the Panthers remains wanting.

ESPN.com’s NHL preview ranked Florida 22nd in the league, and Hockey Prospectus had the Cats 29th — second to last.

To them and many, it was as if last season never happened.

That’s OK with the Panthers though.

“What have you done for me lately — I believe in that,” Dineen said.

Last season brought that division banner newly raised but it didn’t bring the Panthers many believers.

Nights like Saturday will though, and so will the arrival of Jonathan Huberdeau.

You got the feeling we may be seeing quite a lot of him in that ridiculous red hat.

It isn’t what you’d call a good look, but it’s something a guy could get used to.

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