New Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice really likes his team, and it’s easy to see why.

In 2021-22, the Panthers won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, which is given annually to the best team in the NHL’s regular season.

“I was looking for a very specific opportunity, and this was it,” Maurice said of the coaching vacancy he filled with the Panthers. “In my meeting with (Panthers general manager) Bill Zito, I thought, ‘Oh man, I want to get back behind the bench.’ But you don’t know the players. You don’t know until you get there.”

The Panthers, who visit the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday afternoon, have done nothing to disappoint Maurice so far.

Florida defeated the host New York Islanders, 3-1, on Thursday night as Patrick Hornqvist scored the go-ahead goal with his third-period wraparound tally.

Matthew Tkachuk, Florida’s huge offseason acquisition, added an empty-net goal with 75 seconds left in the Panthers’ season-opening victory.

Tkachuk, who was acquired for his skill but just as importantly for his grit, had a game-high-tying four shots on goal against the Islanders.

“Goal or not, that’s how I want to play,” said Tkachuk, who also added one hit. “This was the team I wanted to play on, and, even after just one game, it feels like I’ve played with these guys for 10 years.”

The Sabres, meanwhile, also started their season with a victory on Thursday, beating the visiting Ottawa Senators, 4-1.

For the Sabres, rookie JJ Peterka got his first NHL goal to tie the score, and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin picked up the game-winner midway through the second period. After that, Victor Olofsson scored a pair of empty-net goals in the final 42 seconds.

“Just pure joy,” Peterka said of his initial NHL goal in just his third league game. “I was so excited — just speechless.”

Assuming the starters both get the call, Saturday’s goalie matchup will be a good one between Buffalo’s Craig Anderson and Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky.

Anderson, 41, has played for six NHL franchises, including the Panthers (2006-09). He has a 2.84 career goals-against average, including 3.12 last year in his first season with Buffalo.

Bobrovsky, 34, has played for three NHL franchises, and he is starting his fourth season with the Panthers. He has a 2.56 career GAA. Last season, he led the league in wins, posting a 39-7-3 record with a 2.67 GAA.

On Saturday, he would face a Sabres team that is desperate to reverse the ineptitude of the past decade-plus. In fact, the Sabres have missed the playoffs 11 straight years. They have also gone 15 consecutive years without winning a playoff series.

The Sabres are hoping they can rely on their leaders, including winger Kyle Okposo, who last weekend was named Buffalo’s 20th full-time captain. Dahlin and center Zemgus Girgensons have been named alternate captains.

“It’s a big honor,” said Dahlin, a 21-year-old defenseman who was the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

With their captains selected, the Sabres have the look of a franchise that is finally stabilized as evidenced by the contract extensions recently signed by general manager Kevyn Adams, coach Don Granato and center Tage Thompson, who is coming off a career-best 38-goal season.

–Field Level Media