A fan’s sports pleasure is ephemeral, clearly the true opiate of the masses. But Saturday night, as local puckheads filled BB&T Center for fix No. 2 of 82, I couldn’t help thinking they slotted into the role of the sober relative welcoming a loved one back from rehab.
And praying there wouldn’t be a relapse of 2016-17.
Or, a rerun. Which recalls prime-time soap “Dallas” killing major character Bobby Ewing then with fans peeved, bringing Bobby back and declaring the 1985-86 season as wife Pam Ewing’s dream. Bobby’s back, all resets to the previous normal, as the Panthers hope fans see that Dale Tallon is back in charge, everything resets after that stinky gargantuan brain fart of 2016-17.
Back to being the playoff Panthers of 2015-16. Back to contending at being the NHL’s next great thing with future Selke Trophy winner Aleksandr Barkov and future Norris Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad and the rest of a core that’ll all be in their prime three or four years from now.
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Opening the season with a back-to-back against Tampa Bay works for marketing — trying to ignite a natural rivalry that’s never really stayed lit — and quality measurement. Nobody should be surprised if the Lightning’s scoring talent and skating ability returns them to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four seasons.
Certainly, those assets empower them to embody their nickname, the only reason the Panthers didn’t open the season with a pair of wins. Whether you want to credit the new, assertive system inserted by first-year head coach Bob Boughner or the Panthers’ own skilled youth with size down the middle, the Panthers owned the puck and territorial play through most of Friday night’s 5-3 loss and the first two periods of Saturday’s game.
A breathless beat, a hockey version of James Jamerson’s bass line from The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” ran through the season opening games: Panthers possession, pressure, possession, possession, pressure, near miss, near miss, Lightning counter attack, Tampa Bay goal.
After two periods Saturday, the Panthers held a 40-15 edge in shots while trailing 3-2.
But the Panthers kept resuming the thundering rhythm until it ended with answering goals, the second one Saturday night being a Nick Bjugstad breakaway. You can’t blame anyone for Bjugstad being injured 28 games and not really right when in the lineup. That’s one of those things that happens to every team every season.
It just didn’t help.
I covered this franchise through the firing of Doug MacLean. That time, the Panthers lost two of their three goalies in the waiver draft, a draft in which the rules are designed to keep you from losing two goalies? Covered that. Covered the hiring of Mike Keenan, the demotion of Mike Keenan, the return of Mike Keenan. I was in Air Canada Centre for the 2002 draft when they moved up one spot to draft Petr Taticek No. 9 overall — one spot, which means you reeeeaaallly want the guy — who would never play an NHL game for anyone.
All that and never was I so convinced that Panthers ownership/management deserved a Three Stooges slap across their collective heads as last season. Instead of staying the Tallon course that brought them back to the playoffs with a team led by still-evolving talent envied around the NHL, ownership saw hockey life extra Tom Rowe as a wise star.
Like some craggy Lex Luthor, Rowe gobbled up power and wound up coach and roster shaper while Tallon got put in the back of the closet.
Now, Edmonton and Toronto have glided past the Panthers in the race to be the sleek, slick Next Ones that’ll replace gently aging teams such as last year’s Stanley Cup winner, Pittsburgh, in a few years.
Edmonton is epitomized by last year’s and several future years’ scoring champion Connor McDavid. Not quite possessing McDavid’s super speed, but matching the skill, second-year star Toronto’s Auston Matthews soon will be one of the NHL’s top two or three offensive forces if he isn’t already.
In a few years, McDavid will be the best Canadian-born forward (again, if he isn’t becoming that already). Matthews, a Mexican-American raised in Arizona, should be the best American-born forward, the Panthers could be contributing the best European forward. Barkov looks like he could be the best two-way forward in the league before long. Barkov, Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, 6-3 center prospect Henrik Borgstrom and 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett should give the Panthers the scoring depth contenders have that the franchise has lacked for 20 years.
Taking care of the future. Saturday, the Panthers are close to agreeing on an eight-year extension for defenseman Mike Matheson, the blueliner Tallon saw as doing for the Panthers what Norris Trophy-winning Duncan Keith does for Chicago.
And no matter how good Roberto Luongo’s hips feel now and how eternally youthful his wide-eyed smile seems, he’ll be 39 for the first time by season’s end. Time doesn’t lose. So, behind Luongo is 29-year-old James Reimer, who is signed through 2021, and behind Reimer is 20-year-old Samuel Montembeault, who’ll need some American Hockey League time.
The franchise seems back on track. Now, let’s hope it doesn’t fall off the wagon again.