Aleksi Heponiemi will have a tough time coming up with an encore to his NHL debut.
The Florida Panthers forward scored his first career goal in overtime on Saturday night to give his team a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. The same two teams will play once again in Detroit on Sunday.
Heponiemi, a 22-year-old native of Finland, was on the team’s taxi squad but veteran coach Joel Quenneville showed unusual confidence in the rookie by giving him an overtime shift.
“I thought he really got better as the game went along,” Quenneville said.
According to the Panthers’ PR department, Heponiemi became the fourth player in league history to score an overtime goal in his career debut. He’s the first player in Panthers’ franchise history to do it.
“I thought he had an outstanding camp,” Quenneville said. “I appreciated every single day with the way he competed on the taxi group. He’s got great instincts. He’s a threat, plays the right way. You’re comfortable with him without the puck.”
Heponiemi, who received 9 1/2 minutes of ice time, was surprised to participate in the 3-on-3 overtime session, where defensive breakdowns are magnified.
“I don’t think a lot of coaches would do that,” he said. “It means a lot. Obviously, you always have to earn that ice time. I don’t know, maybe I did.”
The Panthers have been earning points the hard way. They’ve gone to overtime in four of their five games but have collected nine points.
Quenneville believes the makeshift format due to the pandemic has contributed to that. Teams are facing each other twice in a row.
“We’re seeing an abnormal number around the league of tie games, whether it’s familiarity and back-to-back nights … teams know how to play against one another,” he said. “So there’s not that unpredictability sometimes. There’s no surprises who you’re playing and the matchups, so the games are tight.”
The Wings will be seeking their first victory in six games on Sunday. They’re 0-3-2 after starting the season 2-2.
Team captain Dylan Larkin liked the way his team played after getting thumped in Dallas 7-3 two nights earlier.
“That’s the response we wanted. That’s how we have to play,” he said. “Took it to overtime and we outplayed them 5-on-5.”
Detroit lost its top goal scorer during the course of the game. Tyler Bertuzzi didn’t play after the second period due to an upper-body injury. He scored his fourth goal in four games and fifth overall during the first period. Coach Jeff Blashill said Bertuzzi is questionable to play in the rematch.
Blashill tried to shake up his power play unit, as mainstays Larkin and Anthony Mantha played less than three minutes apiece during the team’s four power play opportunities. It didn’t work, as Detroit scored its two goals at even strength, though one came on a delayed penalty.
“He’s says it’s a privilege and it is,” Larkin said of Blashill’s power play lineups. “We just haven’t been good enough, so try to switch something up and get it going. Watching from the bench, it’s definitely a good lesson to me, I guess.”
–Field Level Media