It's a warm feeling as hockey begins again

A four-goal first period helps Panthers start season

Panthers defeat the Hurricanes 5-1

SUNRISE — As if a sold-out arena didn't say enough … as if the Panthers weren't excited about starting this season enough … as if anyone reading the lies and hoaxes this week wasn't looking forward to an actual game enough …

There was Saturday night's first period to usher in the return of hockey. This images werevivid, the idea constant, the goals coming one after another for the Panthers in a way they never did all last season.

Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau scored his first NHL goal on the Panthers' first shot of the season. Veteran Brian Campbell then scored twice. Scottie Upshall scored in the closing minutes of the period.

And so the story of this first night back wasn't just a sold-out crowd of 19,688 fans cheering the dropping of the puck for the first time in more than eight months. It was how Panthers fans stood and cheered a 4-0 lead at the end of the first period.

It was those first 20 minutes that let fans actually cheer hockey amid the celebration of its return. It was the warm feeling as hockey started again after a lockout.

Because Saturday's question was as much about the people returning to watch as the Panthers returning to the ice. It was how the fans treated the return of the game this first night.

A couple of hours before the game, Panthers president and CEO Michael Yormark said with a mix of happiness and relief that the game was sold-out and might be, "our biggest regular-season crowd in years."

In football, in basketball, in baseball, there's a mix of anger and frustration at the end of any work stoppage. Hockey people expected that. Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen apologized for the manner, "This lockout hurt the game and the fans."

No apologizes necessary. Not here. That's in part because the Panthers haven't crept into the souls of enough sports fans. Until this season, the Panthers tried to sell new owners, new coaches, new general managers, new slogans and in one especially interesting reach the idea of sports agent Drew Rosenhaus supporting the team.

But for the first time in 12 years the Panthers could have spent an off-season selling on-ice success as they made the playoffs last year. And they got hit with the labor problem.

"We had a lot of activity after the playoffs and then, about August, a lot of fans said, 'You know what? I'm going to wait and see about this,' '' Yormark said. "And sports said, 'I'm going to wait.' ''

October's start was delayed. Weeks became months. By the time the labor deal was solved, the season was compacted to 4 games and hockey wondered what the damage was.

Saturday's answer? Not much. It helps jump-start the fun when a Panthers team that didn't score more than three goals in a period last season opens up with four. And then adds a fifth early in the second period.

Saturday, you see, night brought the first night hockey back in town. And also the first hockey question. Dmitri Kulikov was too jet-lagged to play? At 22? After just signing a new contract?

The Panthers already were without five starts to injury. Kulikov is in good shape, having played in the Russian league during the lockout. They couldn't have used 10 or 15 minutes of play from one of their best defensemen?

It's good to talk hockey again around a hockey league. But for now we know what we don't know about the Panthers.

We don't know if they can score enough despite that first period. We don't know if they're deep enough. We don't know if last season was a the outlier or what's expected.

All you know is After the recent headlines in the sports pages, after a star Notre Dame player admitted his girlfriend was a hoax and cyclist Lance Armstrong admitting his entire career was a hoax, it's nice to return to an actual game before a full arena involving a local team.

It's January. Hockey is back. And after that first period's four goals it came back in a way no one expected.

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