The Florida Panthers packed up and took off for their first real road trip of the season Monday afternoon, flying to Pittsburgh to kick off a four-game set on Tuesday against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
For the Panthers as a team, this trip will be a strong test after a nice start to the season as Florida won three of its first five while gaining a point in a fourth.
The trip also has a homecoming aspect to it for some.
For instance, Vincent Trocheck gets to go home to visit his friends and family in Pittsburgh as Jaromir Jagr is expected to be saluted for his role on two Stanley Cup championship teams as the Penguins celebrate their 50th anniversary season.
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“It’s always fun to be able to go home, have friends and family members come out and watch,” Trocheck said. “I usually have like 50 people come out every time I go home. It’s nice to go home the night before the game, have a home-cooked meal, see the family and relax a bit before I go out and play.”
Florida and Pittsburgh played things tight last season with all three games going to overtime — two won by the Penguins.
The Panthers won the final meeting between the two in February in a game now best remembered for having Jose Fernandez drop the ceremonial first puck and celebrating with the crowd as Florida won in a shootout.
“We’re going to say this all year; there are no easy teams,” coach Gerard Gallant said of the trip. “It will be a tough battle, the first against the defending champs. It should be fun, but you take one at a time and do your best. We’ve had a good start to the season. We want to make it better.”
On Thursday, the Panthers visit Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, the top pick of the past draft who scored four goals in his debut with the Leafs.
Florida goalie James Reimer spent six seasons with the Leafs before being traded to San Jose at last year's deadline and subsequently signing with the Panthers as a free agent.
With Gallant saying Reimer will start Tuesday in Pittsburgh, it's not known whether the former Leafs goalie will go against his former teammates Thursday in Toronto.
FACEBOOK VIDEO: Florida coach Gerard Gallant speaks before heading to Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon via One Panther Parkway
“It’s fun,” Reimer said. “Every team in this league is good, but when you go to markets like these where hockey is such a big deal and teams are god, it’s fun. These are easy games to get up for. It makes things real enjoyable.
“Toronto is a special place to me, they drafted me and gave me a chance. They gave me the opportunity. The fans, the city; it’s a special place. I really enjoyed it. Hopefully we play well as a team and steal a couple of points.”
On Saturday, the homecoming tour continues in Buffalo where Florida's Mark Pysyk will play his first game against the Sabres since they traded him to Florida on the second day of the draft held at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center.
That game will also feature Dmitry Kulikov's first game against the Panthers.
Kulikov, who went to the Sabres in the deal, was the longest-tenured member of the Panthers at the time of the trade having been drafted by the Panthers in 2009 and playing 460 games — not including 13 postseason contests — with Florida.
“We’re going into some tough buildings, playing some tough teams but I think everyone is excited to get on the road,” Pysyk said. “It’s definitely going to be weird playing in Buffalo although I haven’t looked that far ahead. It should be cool. But it will be strange going to that building and heading to the other room.”
Florida's first set of back-to-backs this season will be this weekend as the Panthers play in Buffalo on Saturday afternoon then head west to Detroit to face the Red Wings on Sunday afternoon.
All told, the Panthers will face the defending Cup champs and then three divisional games within a span of four days before coming home.
“This is a good test for us, we’ve played some real good teams so far,” Trocheck said. “We’re going to continue to test ourselves. ... You want to test yourself against good teams, especially early on. You want to see if you have that ‘it’ factor to go deep into the playoffs.”
▪ Gallant confirmed that forward Jussi Jokinen will continue to be out at least through the start of the road trip with a lower-body injury.
Jokinen left Thursday's game against the Capitals early and has been replaced in the lineup by Kyle Rau.
“It might be this trip, maybe,” Gallant said of Jokinen’s continued absence. “It’s the first two games of this trip for sure. But I thought Kyle was great and it doesn’t surprise me.”
▪ The Penguins will be without captain and Cup hero Sidney Crosby because of a concussion suffered before the season began.
On Monday, Crosby returned to practice and told reporters in Pittsburgh he “feels good” but he won't play against the Panthers.
Crosby also said he is no longer dealing with concussion-like symptoms.
Tuesday: Panthers at Penguins
▪ When/where: 7 p.m.; PPG Arena, Pittsburgh.
▪ TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
▪ Series: Pittsburgh leads 45-36-4.
▪ Scouting report: The Panthers haven’t won in Pittsburgh since the 2013-14 season although both games there last year were decided in overtime. After a 2-0 start, the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins have lost three of four including 5-1 at Nashvile on Saturday.