PITTSBURGH – Professional athletes don't get too excited about checking out arenas, but after years of trudging through the dark tunnels to get to a small and dank visiting locker room, a number of Panthers were interested in seeing the new arena Pittsburgh built to replace the old Igloo.
The team left Philadelphia not long after its rousing 5-0 win over the Flyers, landing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning and holding its first practice in the sparkling Consol Energy Center later that afternoon.
One player was more interested in seeing the Penguins new digs than others.
Panthers winger Bill Thomas not only played for the Penguins during their most recent Stanley Cup championship season, but he also hails from the area. Thomas grew up watching the Penguins and thereby associated the old rink with his childhood team.
Thomas missed Pittsburgh's farewell to Mellon Arena – which sits across the street from the new arena but is being gutted and scheduled for demolition – but can't wait to play in the new joint.
“I was talking to my family and they were saying how they would meet me after the game. I have no idea where to meet them at the new place,'' said Thomas, who scored two goals with an assist in 16 games with Pittsburgh in 2008-09. “It'll definitely be different and I'm excited to see it. It'll be neat to get back there and my family is real excited. My best friend works for the team and he tells me it's just awesome. And this is a tough ticket to get because of the holidays and all that.''
Many members of the Panthers will be heading to Canada or remain in the Buffalo area following Thursday's game against the Sabres to celebrate Christmas with family and friends.
Thomas, however, is getting an early holiday.
Tuesday night was going to be Christmas in the Pittsburgh suburbs as Thomas' mom Karen planned to whip up a feast for not only Bill, but his father George as well as siblings Dave and Katherine. Friends from the neighborhood as well as old chums from Fox Chapel High were also expected at the holiday bash.
“They're all excited and I can't wait to see everyone,'' he said. “I haven't been home since May, so I know my mom is going to go all out.''
Friends and family would likely want to talk about Thomas' recent success with the family. Thomas spent last season playing in the minors as well as in Europe. The Panthers signed him over the summer to be a stabilizing voice for their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. Because of injuries, Thomas was recalled from Rochester not once, but twice (within the span of a day).
Thomas got his second goal in the past six games on Monday in Philadelphia.
“I didn't know a lot about Bill coming into the season but he's a real reliable guy,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “He's one of those guys who is invaluable within the organization just because of his versatility. He can play any position and he has NHL experience. This isn't his first go-round. He's an easy guy to play. You like having guys like that. Guys like him have kept us competitive and keep our head above water through a real tough stretch.''
Defenseman Keaton Ellerby has been scratched from the lineup the past two games, although DeBoer said it's been a tough decision to make. With Bryan Allen back from his broken foot, the Panthers have an extra defenseman. Ellerby played when Dmitry Kulikov is benched, but now playing time is at a premium.
“This is a lesson for the young guys that you can't have a letdown,'' DeBoer said. “I thought his game was real good but the last game in the loss to Carolina he was off a little bit. He wasn't the only one, but guys in his situation have to make it to where we can't scratch you. Listen, he's done a good job. But Kulikov came out of the stands and had one of his best games of the year. That's why we're sticking with him.''
-- The Panthers didn't bring any of their injured players on this trip with those players holding daily workouts in Coral Springs. DeBoer says Rostislav Olesz is due to return first out of that group, although he still doesn't know when that will be.
“He's been out five weeks with a broken finger,'' DeBoer said. “That's the longest broken finger I've ever seen.''
WEDNESDAY: PANTHERS AT PENGUINS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio: FSNF; 560-WQAM
The series: Penguins lead 32-30-4
The game: Pittsburgh had its 12-game winning streak snapped on Dec. 14 by the Flyers, then lost to the Rangers. The Penguins got back to their winning ways Monday as Evgeni Malkin recorded five points in Pittsburgh's 6-1 win over Phoenix. The Pens visit Washington on Thursday as a prelude to the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at the Steelers' Heinz Field. .-.-. Florida has won two straight and five of seven. Pittsburgh beat the Panthers in Sunrise 3-2 on Nov. 22.