General manager Dale Tallon said he likes the way the schedule works out for his Panthers this season.
He can’t be happy with Florida’s opening night opponent, however.
When the Panthers open their 21st season Thursday night, they’ll do so against a rival who has owned them lately.
Tampa Bay, which some have predicted as a Stanley Cup contender this year, not only swept the preseason series against Florida, but won all four games last year as well.
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“They have great team speed and are one of the fastest team in the league. They really attack you,” said defenseman Brian Campbell, who starts his fourth season with the Panthers on Thursday. “You give them a few chances and it seems like the puck ends up in our net. We just need to slow them down and hold them in check.”
The Panthers haven’t won in Tampa since 2013 and haven’t beaten the Lightning at home since 2011.
After Thursday's opener, facing the Lightning won’t be a concern for some time. The two cross-state rivals don’t play each other again until March 1.
Although the Panthers have won 57 of the 113 meetings between the two, Tampa Bay has won 11 of the past 15.
“I don’t think we’ve given them our best,” defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “We go into those games and have left that building knowing we could have done something better. That’s not what you want. But give them credit; they’re big, fast and play a good system. They’re a tough team to play against.”
Even though the Panthers have gotten off to bad starts the past two seasons, they have been good in their openers.
Florida has won three consecutive opening night games — including two on the road.
In 2011, the Panthers opened with Jose Theodore pitching a shutout against the host Islanders; last year, Florida won in Dallas.
On Thursday, there will be plenty of new players on the Florida roster as six free agents were signed in the summer and rookie Aaron Ekblad makes his debut as well.
In addition, Florida has 14 players on the roster who didn’t play in last year’s opener, including the then-injured Sean Bergenheim and Nick Bjugstad.
The Panthers also have a new coaching staff led by head coach Gerard Gallant.
Gallant may have a little something special for the Lightning as he was an assistant coach for the Canadiens last year. Montreal swept the Lightning out of the first round of the playoffs last April.
“For me, Montreal beating Tampa in four straight was [basically] Montreal being on top at the time,” Gallant said.
“We got a great start to the series and had a mental edge on them. They played well, played hard, but when they lost goalie [Ben] Bishop to injury, that was tough to overcome. It’s not that they did anything wrong; Montreal was just unbelievable.”
▪ Defenseman Colby Robak has played in 35 games with the Panthers over the past three seasons but is on the opening night roster for the first time.
Robak isn’t expected to play against the Lightning as he is Florida’s seventh defenseman. But that hasn’t tempered his enthusiasm for making the team out of training camp.
“I can’t explain this, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and worked for,” Robak said. “But this is just one small step. You have to keep working, trying to get better. But I’m ecstatic.”
▪ Veteran Shane O’Brien, signed to a one-year deal on Monday, was sent to AHL San Antonio on Tuesday.
▪ Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft, is expected to make his NHL debut Thursday alongside Campbell. The two were paired together in last weekend's preseason finale at Tampa.
“He’s a good player, first off,” Campbell said. “We know he’s going to make some mistakes, but I like him. He sees the ice really well and makes plays that impress me. You just have to remember he’s 18. But I’m excited.”
Thursday: Panthers at Lightning
Where, When: Amalie Arena, Tampa; 7:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: FSN Florida/WQAM-560
The series: Florida leads 57-46-10
Game notes: Goalie Roberto Luongo starts a Florida opener for the first time since beating Atlanta 2-0 on Oct. 5, 2005. The Panthers play New Jersey in their home opener Saturday.