‘He’s going to be a special player’: Anton Lundell wows Panthers on penalty kill in debut

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The Florida Panthers didn’t wait at all to throw Anton Lundell into the most consequential situations in his debut Thursday.

The rookie center’s career wasn’t even seven minutes old when the Panthers picked their first penalty of the 2021-22 NHL season and went on the penalty kill against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Coach Joel Quenneville immediately ushered Lundell onto the ice and asked the 20-year-old to help shut down the Penguins on their first great scoring chance of the game.

“I like the way he plays the game,” Quenneville said Thursday. “I like the way he kills penalties.”

Florida (1-0-0) committed nine penalties in its season-opening 5-4, overtime win in Sunrise, which meant Lundell was on the ice for 5:26 short-handed, including 20 seconds while Pittsburgh had a 5-on-3 advantage.

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The Penguins scored only one goal while Lundell was on the ice and finished 2 of 9 on the power play. Lundell, who led all forwards in short-handed time on ice, even created the Panthers’ best short-handed scoring chance in the first period, setting up star center Aleksander Barkov in front of the net.

“I had a little bit too good of a chance to practice,” Lundell joked Thursday.

The Panthers hope Lundell won’t have to take on the same short-handed workload Saturday at 6 p.m. when they host the New York Islanders at FLA Live Arena, but he proved himself capable of taking on one of Florida’s most important defensive responsibilities in his debut.

It was an idea Quenneville had from the very start of training camp. An injury held Lundell out of practice for the first two weeks of camp and Quenneville immediately had him start working with the penalty-kill unit at his first practice on Oct. 4 in Coral Springs.

While he played penalty-kill minutes in both of his preseason appearances, those games were without a full complement of forwards. On Thursday, Quenneville confirmed it was more than just an idea — Lundell is his go-to penalty-killing forward.

“He did great for a kid that’s that young,” said winger Frank Vatrano, who plays on the third line with Lundell. “To have the defensive responsibilities that he has and the way he was penalty killing with Barky last night, I think he fits in really well.”

In those five-plus short-handed minutes with Lundell on the ice, Florida gave up 12 shot attempts, 10 scoring chances and five high-danger scoring chances.

Lundell’s most dynamic penalty-killing moment came with about 12:40 left in the first period, when he and Barkov drove the ice for a 2-on-2 to try to kill time. Barkov whipped a pass behind the net, and Lundell gathered it and fired a no-look pass back to Barkov from behind the goal. Barkov wound up with a shot from the left doorstep and barely missed wide.

Lundell has drawn frequent comparisons to Barkov because both are Finnish and gifted two-way forwards. Last season, Barkov won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, and now Lundell gives Florida a 1-2 punch while also relieving Barkov, who led the Panthers with 26 goals last year, of some of his defensive responsibilities.

“He held his ground,” defenseman Radko Gudas said. “It was amazing to see him playing this well, especially in his first game.”

Lundell ultimately played 15:37 total and Florida outshot Pittsburgh 5-3 when he was on the ice for 5-on-5 action, although the Penguins did have the edge in most possession metrics.

Still, Lundell’s talent was evident as he often led the break and used crafty stickhandling to weave his way through the middle of the ice. His even-strength production should improve when he doesn’t have to play so many short-handed minutes, but he already has a clear-cut role in his first week in the NHL and it could be an important one once again against the defensive-minded Islanders (0-0-1) this weekend.

“He came in and played well as a center in the NHL,” forward Carter Verhaeghe said, “so you can tell he’s going to be a special player.”