MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The long wait is nearly over as the Florida Panthers return to the ice for their season opener on Thursday.

This season is a normal one after the last two seasons were altered by the global pandemic.

Eighty-two games, full travel, playing every other team, just like it used to be.

The Panthers are one of the favorites this year to compete for the Stanley Cup.

There is a good reason why so many people are so high on Joel Quenneville’s team.

Start with him and his three Stanley Cups as an NHL head coach. Coach Q is second all-time in wins and 38 away from an incredible 1,000 coaching wins.

Then, there is one of the best 1-2 punches in the NHL in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

Add in one of the top defensive pairs in Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar.

Last season, the Panthers finished fourth in the NHL standings and gave the Stanley Cup champion Lightning all they could handle in the first round playoff series.

The Cats bring all of their top players back and have added a top player in forward Sam Reinhart.

Acquired in a trade from Buffalo, Reinhart is a legitimate scorer and will start the season playing with Barkov.

The Cats also added legend Joe Thornton. The 42-year-old has never won a Stanley Cup and he chose the Panthers as his team for his 24th NHL season to try and hoist that cup.

In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky gets the opening night start.

Twenty-year-old phenom Spencer Knight will get his opportunities early in the season, perhaps as soon as the second game, Saturday against the Islanders.

The bottom line is, as the season develops the best goalie will play. It is pretty simple.

A good start to the season always goes a long way because the Panthers have spent too many seasons chasing the pack.

Last year, they played well right from the get-go and cruised into the playoffs.

A return to the postseason is far from guaranteed in the very tough Atlantic division and eastern conference.

The Cats looked good in training camp, playing with good speed and production in going 5-2 in preseason games.

But, it is time to drop the puck for real.

Steven "Goldie" Goldstein