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Florida Panthers Split Preseason Doubleheader with Predators ... Huberdeau Makes Great First Impression as Reinprecht, Cullen and Esposito Fight for Spot

Three forwards trying to bounce back this season and make an increasingly tough Panthers roster to crack got off to a good start on Monday afternoon.

Mark Cullen, Angelo Esposito and Steven Reinprecht could all be longshots to be on Florida's opening night roster, but they all plan on making it tough on the Panthers to send them to the minors. 

Cullen scored a goal with Esposito and Reinprecht both notching assists in Florida's 5-3 preseason loss to Nashville at BankAtlantic Center.

Of course rookie Jonathan Huberdeau scored a goal with an assist in Florida's 4-3 win in the second game of the double header, not making things any easier on those other three. 

“I think it's great, but it's just the beginning,'' said Huberdeau, the first star in his first NHL exhibition. “I have to work hard if I want to make the team this year.''

Reinprecht has probably the best chance of the trio to make the team, the veteran center having 663 games of NHL experience. But last year was rough on Reinprecht as the Panthers benched him for the first three games of the season before waiving him and eventually sending him out of town. 

Reinprecht played in 29 games for Florida last year but ended the season in Europe. The Panthers loaned him to a professional team in Germany where he played in 18 games with four goals and 13 points. 

“It was a difficult year, yeah, but there's nothing I can do about it now,'' Reinprecht said. “I believe I can still play in the NHL. I want to prove that. I put the team ahead of myself, I just want to help them win. You definitely miss playing in the NHL, miss it a lot. It gives you a real – not that you need more incentive – kick in the butt.''

With coach Pete DeBoer gone, some think Reinprecht is going to have a better chance of making this year's team. And money could help Reinprecht as well. Reinprecht is in the final year of a three-year pact he signed with the Panthers in 2009. He'll make $2 million whether he plays for the Panthers, in the minors or back in Europe.

“He's having a good training camp,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “It's no message, but if I see someone with jump, why wouldn't you want them out there? For me, you have to look back to a certain extent, but what you do today is important, what you do tomorrow.''

There's little doubt Reinprecht is using last year as motivation coming into this season. He's in great shape and seems to have impressed Dineen. 

“Wherever I play, I want to do my best,'' Reinprecht said. “It's a new staff and I want to show them what I can do. I'm going to work hard and see what happens. I'm under contract and want to earn a spot.''

After the start Cullen had to his 2010-11 season, he seems just happy to be on the ice much less scoring a goal. Cullen ruptured his Achilles tendon on the opening day of training camp, getting hurt during the physical testing. Cullen missed most of the season, eventually playing in 28 games in the AHL. 

Cullen will more than likely start the season with Florida's AHL affiliate in San Antonio.

“As far as my hockey career goes, that was the most frustrating thing, to have such a severe injury and never even make it on the ice,'' he said after Monday's game. “It was tough, but I made it through and I feel pretty good. I never felt back to 100 percent [last season], never felt like myself.''

Esposito came to the Panthers in an offseason trade, with Florida sending former first round pick Kenndal McArdle to Winnipeg. Esposito was highly regarded in the months leading into the 2007 draft, at one point being the top rated player. But questions arose about his work ethic and commitment and he fell to Pittsburgh with the 20th overall selection. 

Knee and shoulder injuries have limited Esposito to 69 AHL games in the past two seasons. The Panthers like Esposito's upside and hope that if he stays healthy, he'll turn into a solid NHL contributor. Esposito spent less than one full season with the Penguins organization before being traded to Atlanta in 2008.  

“He's an intriguing player,'' Dineen said. “He comes from an organization, Chicago of the AHL, that's full of veteran players. They play to win every night so sometimes prospects don't get to play that much. His stats may reflect that. I thought he was very solid.''


Game 1 – Nashville 5, Panthers 3: The Predators got third period goals from Jani Lajunen and Kyle Wilson to pull away from Florida in the opening exhibition game for both teams. Florida got goals from Dmitry Kulikov, Mark Cullen and Greg Rallo in the loss. Brian Foster replaced starter Tyler Plante and gave up four goals on 14 shots.

Game 2 – Panthers 4, Nashville 3: The Panthers rallied from a 3-2 deficit as Mike Santorelli and Tim Kennedy scored 54 seconds apart in the third period. Scott Clemmensen started and played the entire game, stopping 23 of the 26 shots faced. Eric Selleck and Jonathan Huberdeau also scored for Florida; Nashville got goals from Teemu Laakso, Ryan Thang and South Florida native Blake Geoffrion.

Geoffrion was born at Plantation General but moved to Tennessee with his family when he was 1.