Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers face early measuring stick as they begin Joel Quenneville era

They have practiced for weeks, with a new coach, a slight new system and a continued hope for the postseason.

Two-and-a-half weeks of training camp and eight preseason games have tested the Florida Panthers for this moment.

“The dog days are over,” veteran defeseman Keith Yandle said. “Now the fun starts.”

So, too, does the challenge.

The Joel Qunneville era of Panthers hockey begins Thursday and opens with a pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning — at Amalie Arena to begin the season at 7 p.m. Thursday and then on their home ice of the BB&T Center at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve got a great test right off the bat,” Quenneville said, “to find out how we really did in training camp.”

But that’s just the beginning.

Eight of the Panthers’ 10 games to open the season come against teams that made the Stanley Cup playoff last year. That includes road contests against three of the four reigning divisional champions. The Panthers travel to face the Nashville Predators on Oct. 19 and Calgary Flames on Oct. 24 in addition to Thursday’s opener in Tampa.

It adds an extra layer to the quest to avoid the slow starts — and the inevitable uphill climb in attempt to reach the postseason that comes with it — of recent Panthers teams.

Take last season as an example.

The Panthers on paper entered the season as a playoff contender and a potential dark horse to make a playoff run.

Instead, they went 2-5-3 in their first 10 games and eventually went on two separate six-game losing streaks to finish 12 points out of a wild card spot.

But last season was just the latest in the franchise’s early season struggles. The Panthers have not had a winning record through first 10 games since a 6-4-0 start to the 2011-12 season. It was one of two times the Panthers made the playoffs this decade.

The hope is that with Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest coach in NHL history, leading the charge will give the team a needed spark.

Same with the return of their top nine point scorers — led by the top-line trio of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.

Same with their splash in free agency, bringing in top goaltender Sergei Bobrovski, center Noel Acciari and defenseman Anton Stralman.

“We like our depth,” Quenneville said. “We like the balance.”

The question remains: Will that translate into success, to a postseason berth, to the franchise’s first playoff series win since its run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1995-96?

They’re about to find out.

“I think we all understand and we don’t need to speak about it,” Bobrovski said. “The organization made the big moves, big deals in the summer so there are expectations. It is important to have a good start. I know it’s a long season, but every game is so important and every point is so important. There’s no time to test the water. You have to jump right in from the first game and fight for each and every point.”

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.