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Panthers Strong Start Could Be A Sign Of Things To Come

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SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – The Florida Panthers have played three games so far this season, leaving just 79 to go.

The sample size is very small but it's becoming quite clear that things are going to be a little different this year with the Panthers.

Over the years scoring goals has been a major issue with Florida and fans have been patiently waiting for the team's young core of gifted scorers to begin succeeding on a consistent basis at the NHL level.

Based on what we've seen between training camp, the preseason and now the regular season, it appears the wait may be over.

The Panthers have scored 11 goals in their three games, but beyond that the team has been generating a lot of scoring chances only to be stymied by very good goaltending.

One of the best things about the Panthers' improved offensive capabilities is that they haven't been exclusive to one or two lines.

Florida has been rolling four lines in every game and they're all making things happen.  You could argue that the Cats fourth line was their best one on Tuesday in Carolina, but it's hard to say as every line was making things happen.

This is the first time in many many years, if ever, that the Panthers are able to consistently attack on offense regardless of who is on the ice.

General manager Dale Tallon decided during the offseason that he wasn't going to make any moves in free agency, instead choosing to allow Florida's young players to take the keys and drive the team.

Whether you're talking about Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden or Connor Brickley, all the young players have taken another step forward. The confidence level among Florida's players is through the roof, and it shows on every shift.

It isn't just the youthful forwards that are impressing though.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, last year's Calder Trophy winner as the NHL's Rookie of the Year, is already playing like a seasoned veteran and he's only 19 years old.

Alex Petrovic has been providing extremely solid defense in the Panthers zone and this is only the first time he's made the NHL team out of training camp.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing from the young defenders is the play of Erik Gudbranson.  This is his fifth season with the Panthers but he's still just 23 years old.

Gudbranson was selected with the third overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and while he's been a sound defensive player during his career, he has yet to live up to the expectations of being such a high draft pick.

That could be changing this season though. He has looked very comfortable on the ice, whether he's in the defensive zone or rushing up the ice with teammates.

It's yet to be seen if he'll see a jump in his offensive output, but the evolution of his play as a defender is the important thing.

So far Gudbranson has had multiple crushing hits in each of the Panthers three games. Providing that kind of a physical game while staying out of the penalty box and not letting it compromise his defensive assignments is a huge step forward for him.

The great play of Florida's forwards and defensemen has been matched, if not exceeded, by its goaltenders.

Roberto Luongo has started two games and Al Montoya has started one.  The Panthers goalies have given up just one goal per game in each of the team's three games, combining for a save percentage of .968 which is good for fourth in the league.

Overall, things are looking very good for the Panthers but it's still very early in the season.

It's encouraging that Florida is averaging 3.67 goals per game while giving up just 1.0.

The difference of 2.67 is second in the entire league, behind only San Jose who has scored 12 goals in three games while giving up just one for a difference of 3.67.

The advice to fans is to temper expectations, but at the same time it's not out of the question to view this season as the one where the Panthers transition from a consistent draft lottery participant to a perennial playoff team that can compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out.

The Panthers face the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, October 15th at 7:30 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.

Follow David on Twitter (@DavidDwork)

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