Uvis Balinskis, Panthers look to make mark vs. Blackhawks
Posted on: 11 Nov, 2023 at 08:13 PM
Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Rookie defenseman Uvis Balinskis is trying to make the most of his opportunity.
With veteran defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour out due to injuries, Balinskis is expected to be in the lineup once again on Sunday afternoon when his Florida Panthers host the Chicago Blackhawks.
Balinskis, a 27-year-old native of Latvia, scored his first NHL goal on Friday as Florida recorded its third straight win with a 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
"It's really crazy," Balinskis said. "I was happy to make an NHL team. Now, to score my first goal -- it's unreal."
Panthers coach Paul Maurice said Balinskis has earned his way into the NHL.
"He's been really good for us," Maurice said, "but he was even faster (on Friday)."
Once Ekblad and Montour return, they will likely resume their status as Florida's top two defensemen. Gustav Forsling and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov likely are next in the pecking order. That would leave the sixth and final spot in the rotation to a battle between Niko Mikkola, Josh Mahura and Balinskis.
The Panthers are healthier among their forwards as only Sam Bennett is out.
Among those healthy forwards, Sam Reinhart leads the team in goals (nine) and points (17). Matthew Tkachuk leads the team in assists (10).
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida's starting goalie, is 7-3-1 with a 2.65 goals-against average. Backup Anthony Stolarz is 1-1-0 with a 2.57 GAA. Stolarz's lone loss was to the Blackhawks, 5-2, on Nov. 4.
Chicago, meanwhile, wants to sweep its two-game mini road trip that started on Thursday with a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In fact, the Blackhawks have been a solid road team this season (4-4-0). But they will be up against a Panthers team playing exceptionally well at home (5-1-0).
Rookie Connor Bedard, the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, is the big story in Chicago hockey this season.
The 18-year-old phenom leads Chicago in goals (seven) and points (11). In the game against Florida, he scored on a breakaway.
Bedard, a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder from Vancouver, is regarded as the NHL's best rookie since Connor McDavid made his debut in 2015. McDavid had 16 goals that season, and Bedard is on pace to improve on that total.
Against Tampa Bay on Thursday, Bedard earned praise from coach Luke Richardson after collecting two goals and two assists.
"He's new to the league, but he's starting to really figure it out," Richardson said. "He's using his skills to the best of his ability."
The rebuilding Blackhawks also are playing several other rookies, including defensemen Kevin Korchinski, 19; and Wyatt Kaiser, 21. In addition, defenseman Alex Vlasic, 22, had just 21 games of NHL experience prior to this season.
To protect and mentor those youngsters, the Blackhawks brought in veteran forwards Taylor Hall, 31; Corey Perry, 38; and Nick Foligno, 36.
Other key veterans include goalie Petr Mrazek; 31; and defenseman Seth Jones, 29.
Foligno leads the team in assists (six). Mrazek tops the squad in wins (4-3-0, 2.84 GAA).
--Field Level Media