Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers to meet in NHL openers in Finland

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HELSINKI, Finland - It will be another first for the NHL.

When the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers square off Friday and Saturday at Hartwall Arena to open their regular seasons, it will mark the first time the NHL has held games that count in Finland.

Last season, Pittsburgh and Ottawa opened their seasons with a two-game series in Sweden, which will also host two games this year. Detroit and St. Louis will play games Friday and Saturday in Stockholm, part of the league's globalization effort.

Chicago, a young team loaded with offensive talent, advanced to the Western Conference final last season, where it was beaten in a close series by Detroit.

The Panthers hope to begin the season the way they finished last year. They surged from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to fall just short of the playoffs, missing the post-season by just one point.

"We need to play like we did then in order to make the playoffs," Florida coach Peter DeBoer said. "The reason for a slow start last season was partly a new coach, me, a new system I was putting in and getting to know the personnel."

"When we got all that in place we were a good team. This year we don't have to go through that, so I'm hoping that means a better start."

Following practice Thursday, DeBoer turned his attention to the season opener against the Blackhawks.

"Chicago is a very good team. When we met in Florida last season, I don't think we touched the puck," he said. "They have a lot of skill, a lot of talent."

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had a look at the Panthers in a preseason game against Finnish league team Jokerit on Wednesday.

"They've got some speed, some skill, have a lot of energy and they've got a mobile defence, so they got a lot of respect," Quenneville said. "We know how close and competitive our league is, and we expect a tough challenge."

Quenneville has a front line of 20-year-old Patrick Kane, 21-year-old Jonathan Toews and 27-year-old Patrick Sharp that scored 85 goals last season and combined for 98 assists, adding 23 goals in the playoffs.

"We're a young team which made us proud last year," Quenneville said. "But it's a new season, a new challenge and the teams will be ready when they play us so we have to be at our best. A goal is to improve our team game and skills."

Two-time Stanley Cup winner John Madden, 36, also will make his debut for Chicago.

"Madden brings experience," Quenneville said. "He's a good pro and teammate, knows how to win. "

"is penalty killing is very effective and he can win face-offs. He knows his way around. It's the first time for him elsewhere than in New Jersey, a challenge he's excited about."

Florida, meanwhile, has a late decision to make on the season's first lineup.

"We have three defencemen with flu just now, and Stephen Weiss has the flu and the groin (injury)," DeBoer said.

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