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GOOD START: Tim Thomas Makes Florida Debut, Cats Lose in OT (Again)

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ESTERO, Fla. -- The Panthers will not only go into their 20th anniversary season with a new owner, but with a new goalie as well.

Stanley Cup champion goaltender Tim Thomas made his Florida debut on Thursday by starting a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Lightning a few hours after signing a one-year deal with the team.

Thomas, 39, started and played half the game across Alligator Alley from the arena he will, for now at least, call home. The Panthers lost 3-2 in overtime to the Lightning.

"It felt good for being the first time in a game-like atmosphere for 15 months,'' said Thomas, who made nine saves and left midway through the second with the Panthers holding a 2-1 lead at Germain Arena.

"I think it was a necessary step for me. I thought it was good not to wait. We're running out of preseason games."

The one-year contract -- which carries a base salary of $2.5 million but a cap hit closer to $4 million based on incentives -- was approved by the NHL a few hours before Thomas took the ice.

"He battles on every shot, every drill,'' general manager Dale Tallon said. "This is great for our team, great for him and great for our goalies. They get to watch how he works, how he prepares. You see how he's a champion. That's a very important thing.''

Thomas comes to the Panthers with plenty of expertise, hardware and some baggage that most of his teammates say they couldn't care less about.

"I think this is exciting,'' goalie coach Robb Tallas said. "He walks around with a confidence but he also enjoys the game. He always has a smile on his face. He makes big saves at the right time. The players here are excited about that.''

In 2011, Thomas had a season to remember. Not only did he lead the Boston Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship in almost 40 years, but he was named the MVP of the postseason in doing so. Thomas also won his second Vezina Trophy -- given to the NHL's top netminder -- that season.

Thomas played well the following year although his stay in Boston suddenly ended after a tumultuous 2011-12 season. The problems all started after Thomas skipped the Bruins' trip to the White House citing a personal conflict with how the government was being run.

The attention given to Thomas' snub -- as well as political posts through social media -- was said to be a distraction in the Boston locker room. When the Bruins were knocked out in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, Thomas said he would sit out the next season.

Thomas reported to Panthers' training camp on Sept. 16 in good shape and could be Florida's opening night starter in Dallas on Oct. 3.

"I feel ready now,'' Thomas said.

Florida is expected to start the season with Thomas and Jacob Markstrom as its two goalies to start the season with Scott Clemmensen going to the minors on a rehab assignment. After that, however, the Panthers have to decided who Florida's second goalie will be.

Clemmensen will be paid $1.2 million this season whether it's in Florida or with the Panthers' AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Markstrom, 23, has spent parts of the past three seasons in San Antonio but took over the starting duties in Florida when Jose Theodore was hurt last March.

"We want the best goalies,'' Tallon said. "Inner-competition is great for the success of a team. Let them battle it out.''

Thomas and the rest of his new teammates will be back at the BB&T Center in Sunrise for practice Friday morning. That workout will follow the introductory press conference of new owner Vinnie Viola.

Viola is spending at least $230 million for the franchise and the operating rights to the Broward County-owned BB&T Center in Sunrise. The Panthers have a lease with the county to occupy the arena until 2028.

According to sources close to the deal, Viner -- who had been the Panthers' sole general partner since 2010 -- will not continue to own a piece of the team but will remain involved with the Panthers' charitable organization.

Viner was praised by both Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen as a hands-off owner. Despite being a huge fan of the team, Viner hired Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos in 2010 and allowed them to do their jobs.

Florida's multitude of local investors -- which include the likes of H. Wayne Huizenga, Alan Cohen, Bernie Kosar, Mike Maroone and Jordan Zimmerman -- are also said to have been bought out.

Viner, who declined comment via e-mail until the sale is complete, isn't expected to attend Friday's press conference.

"Cliff leaves the franchise much better than how he found it,'' Dineen said. "He leaves us on solid ground and heading in the right direction. Tomorrow is a new day but you have to acknowledge where you've been. He made a commitment to step up and put people in place he thought could get the job done.''

Thursday's game -- Lightning 3, Panthers 2 (OT): Jonathan Huberdeau's two goals weren't enough as Tampa Bay got one from Nikita Kucherov with 55 seconds left in overtime to send the Panthers (2-1-3) to their fourth straight exhibition loss. Three of those four losses have come in overtime.

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