Gameday Preview: Florida Panthers @ Dallas Stars (7:30pm CDT)

Ronald Martinez

Hockey returns with a new look (in more ways than one) to the American Airlines Center tonight as the Florida Panthers come calling first...

On April 27th, 2013 the Dallas Stars ended their fifth consecutive playoff-less season against the Detroit Red Wings. 158 days later on this October day they return to AAC ice and the transformation from the former date to the latter could scarcely be more complete in its breadth.

A new coaching staff and a new general manager in Jim Nill, not to mention the tremendous roster turnover that happened in a very short period of time, all have Tom Gaglardi hoping that his new purchases are indeed steering this franchise in the right direction.

The new uniforms and logos, making their television debut tonight, help the re-branding along quite nicely, but ultimately it's about what happens on the ice.

"We're sick of practicing," Tyler Seguin told the DMN this week. "We're ready to go. You definitely want to be at the top of your game on day one. That's what we are going to do. We want to be hot from the start, get some wins, get some confidence and go from there."

Dallas beat the Panthers twice in the preseason, but never saw much of a full NHL-caliber lineup with which to contend. Tonight will be different as the intensity ratchets up, and Tim Thomas is expected to make his return to the NHL in goal.

Florida, meanwhile, had a league worst 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio last season of 0.57, meaning they were outscored at even-strength by very nearly a ratio of 2-1, but boast a young lineup with much in the way of pure skill, and an upgrade in goal. They have a tough climb ahead of them in a very deep division.

The Stars find themselves already trailing the Blackhawks, Jets and Avalanche in what is sure to be a tight division race for the final playoff spots.

The puck drops tonight at about 7:38pm CDT on Fox Sports Southwest and Spooorts Radio 1310, The Ticket.

The Stars:

Weeks of practicing, scrimmaging and exhibition play come to a head tonight as the Stars take on an opponent with actual NHL points on the line. Questions when the group broke camp were abundant, but have since come into focus with over a week to play, and there is very little say that isn't already known.

The lineup should look like this, as it has all week...

Benn-Seguin-Cole
Whitney-Eakin-Chiasson
Horcoff-Fiddler-Nichushkin
Roussel-Mueller-Garbutt

Dillon-Robidas
Goligoski-Gonchar
Daley-Benn

Aaron Rome is practicing (hip) and Kevin Connauton is healthy as well, so after the Stars' five day break following the Saturday contest against Washington the coaching staff will likely be looking at eight healthy defensemen to rotate. Rich Peverley is expected to be available Saturday night for his Stars debut.

Kari Lehtonen, of course, will start in game number one.

From Stars PR: "The Stars come into Thursday's contest having won each of their last three season openers, and have earned at least one point in each of the last 14 home openers (11-0-3). That's a pretty strong streak to break. Are the Panthers the team to do it?

The Panthers:

Florida was quiet in July on the free agent market, choosing instead to pick discount names off the scrap heap in this, a lockout affected summer where the salary cap dropped and many would-be players were left to poorly leveraged free agent situations.

Tom Gilbert, Brad Boyes and Tim Thomas entered the picture in recent weeks, joining first-rounder Aleksander Barkov and company to make up a pretty skilled Florida lineup. Their projected lines, or something like it:

Versteeg-Goc-Fleischmann
Hubredau-Barkov-Boyes
Kopecky-Matthias-Winchester
Upshall-Gomez-Shore

Campbell-Gudbranson
Kulikov-Weaver
Gilbert-Whitney/Gillroy

Injuries: Though he missed six months prior, Kris Versteeg will make his return to the ice tonight after a knee surgery. Bjugstad (concussion) and Ed Jovanovksi (hip) are out on injured reserve.

Tim Thomas is scheduled to get the start in goal.

Florida has some nice skill on the back end. Crisp breakouts from Kulikov, Campbell and Gudbranson could pose a threat if the Dallas' D "activates," as has been the mantra in the preseason, so keep an eye on the Stars' back-checking. The Panthers got goals against Dallas from Upshall, Shore and Gilbert, all of whom will be in the lineup tonight.

Last change will be critical, but does Ruff want to match up specific lines and situations, or roll all four and demand responsibility from each? We'll check it out tonight and report back...

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