The Miami Heat may not be welcomed in San Antonio after last summer's NBA Finals, yet the Florida Panthers feel right at home deep in the heart of Texas.
The Panthers, whose AHL affiliate plays in San Antonio, have brought NHL hockey to the city for the first time in the 10-year history of the AT&T Center. After holding two practice sessions at the Spurs' arena on Thursday, the Panthers will play host to the Dallas Stars on Friday night.
The lower bowl of the arena is sold out and a crowd exceeding 10,000 is expected to watch Friday's game. The Panthers were supposed to play the Stars here last year, but that game -- like many others -- was wiped out because of the NHL lockout.
"We get treated so well here,'' said Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, who spent a lot of time during the lockout in San Antonio watching the Rampage. "This really is a great affiliation. The Spurs have one of the best-run organization in all of sports. We are enjoying our time here on the Riverwalk.''
The Rampage, which is owned by the Spurs, will hold its training camp in San Antonio starting Sunday. That means Friday's game is perhaps the last chance a good number of players in training cam will have to impress the Panthers' brass.
The Panthers are expected to leave around 20 players in San Antonio when the team leaves Texas on Saturday for their preseason game later that night in Tampa.
Dineen expects to have around 35 players for Monday's practice in Coral Springs. Florida's current roster, including injured players, is at 59.
Florida opens its regular season Oct. 3 in Dallas; the Rampage opens at home the following night against Chicago.
"It's going to be a really tough cut,'' Dineen said. "It's going to be some hard conversations between myself and Dale [Tallon] because I'm trying to be merciless to have a workable, manageable number. Yet for some guys, the decision haven't been made. There is opportunity here for those willing to grab it.''
WEDNESDAY - STARS 3, PANTHERS 2 (SO)
There weren't many goals scored in Wednesday's preseason game at Dallas although what scoring the Panthers and Stars did came in bunches.
Dallas scored its two goals within a 30 second span in the second; Florida got its two goals (Quinton Howden and Scottie Upshall) within 14 seconds late in the third. Dallas won 3-2 in a shootout as Florida dropped to 2-0-1 in the preseason.
"I really liked our first period, it was our best out of all of them,'' Dineen said. "[Dallas coach] Lindy Ruff had his A-squad out there and we stayed with them. Then they scored bang-bang, and the way we played in the final seven minutes of the second, they deserved it. But we showed some good push back and got some timely goals. It was an entertaining game.''
PANTHERS UPCOMING SCHEDULE*
Friday: Preseason game vs. Stars, AT&T Center (San Antonio), 8 p.m.
Saturday: Preseason game at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.
Monday: Practice, 9 a.m. (Iceplex)
Tuesday: Practice, 9 a.m. (Iceplex)
Wednesday: Practice, 9 a.m. (Iceplex)
Thursday: Practice, 9 a.m. (Iceplex); Preseason game v Tampa Bay (Estero, Fl.), 7:30 p.m.
(*) All workouts at the Coral Springs Iceplex are free and open to the public. Starting times subject to change.