The Florida Panthers entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1993 and within three years were playing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Florida has reached the postseason six times since that unexpected run and has yet to win a playoff series, but things look different at the start of this season.
The Panthers have won their first three games, including against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
They will try to keep that momentum going when they host the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.
Florida has high expectations this season under three-time Cup winning coach Joel Quenneville. The Panthers lost in six games to Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, but they have a reason to have loftier goals this season.
Behind veteran goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is 20-year-old Spencer Knight, who had 30 saves in the 4-1 win over the Lightning. And in addition to a mix of veterans is rookie forward Anton Lundell, who had a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s victory.
“The two kids were special tonight,” Quenneville said after the win. “That was bright for the future of the organization.”
Bobrovsky likely will be in net against Colorado, while veteran center Joe Thornton is a little lighter in the wallet.
Thornton, who at 42 signed a one-year deal with Florida, was fined $1,875 for slashing the Lightning’s Boris Katchouk on Tuesday night.
He avoided a suspension, unlike Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog did for a boarding hit in Colorado’s season-opening win against Chicago.
Landeskog was suspended for two games and will return for Thursday night’s game.
Like the Panthers, Colorado has championship aspirations this season. The Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy last season but lost in the second round to Vegas. Salary cap and expansion draft issues impacted Colorado’s depth heading into this season, and the team has struggled.
Star center Nathan MacKinnon missed the first two games after testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 11. He finally was cleared to play Tuesday night and had an assist in a 6-3 loss at Washington but was a minus-5.
“It impacted him immensely,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of MacKinnon’s eight-day quarantine. “The competitive part of the game was missing from that line, and Nate was part of that. They just weren’t good enough, and it wasn’t just them. It was our whole team.”
The Avalanche already are digging into the AHL roster to fill spots for injured players — Valeri Nichushkin and Stefan Matteau are out for an extended period — and they are struggling defensively.
Colorado has given up 11 total goals in two straight losses and has had breakdowns in front of goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
“The results aren’t coming right now,” Kuemper said. “Not happy about the last two losses. Just stick with the process. I know we’ll turn it around here.”
Having Landeskog back will help restore normalcy to the line combinations. That, and his presence will mean a lot to those around him.
“He’s our captain and one of the best players in the league,” teammate Mikko Rantanen said. “So I’m excited to get him back.”