CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – For Florida Panthers' rookie defenseman Riley Stillman, the last few years of his life have been a blur.
Two seasons ago he was winning an Ontario Hockey League title with the Hamilton Bulldogs and playing in the 2018 Memorial Cup.
A year later, his first professional season, Stillman blossomed as his role and responsibilities grew while playing for the Springfield Thunderbirds, Florida's American Hockey League affiliate.
Now, not only is Stillman enjoying his first season in the National Hockey League, he's also carved out an integral role for himself on the left side of Florida's second defensive pairing, next to Anton Stralman.
“It’s exciting,” Stillman said after Saturday’s practice at the Panthers Ice Den. “It’s been a long journey, but a short journey, and I’m excited to keep things going in the right direction.”
Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville married the rookie and Stralman, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons, after Stillman was called up by Florida in late December, following the league's annual holiday break.
The two have been almost exclusive in the time since, and Stillman has seen his ice time steadily increase under Coach Q's watchful eye.
"Stiller had an interesting year," Quenneville said Saturday. "I thought he came on and right off the bat, he instilled a real presence on our back end. He brought some physicality. I thought he had real good puck movement and simplicity to his game."
Through six days of postseason training camp in Coral Springs, Stillman and Stralman are still doing their thing.
If all goes according to plan, the 22-year-old will make his playoff debut for Florida in a couple weeks and compete for the Stanley Cup. Not bad for a guy who was playing in the OHL just over two years ago.
"The regular season is one thing, but the playoffs are a whole different level," Stillman said. "Everything is marked up; the intensity, the practice, the details, everything. Now your life is on the line every night, and that's something that we take pride in."
CONNOLLY EMBRACING HIS ROLE
Florida had a very specific plan when attacking free agency last summer, targeting and signing several seasoned playoff veterans.
Stralman was one, and sharpshooting winger Brett Connolly was another.
Coming out of the pause, Connolly is looking at the 24-team postseason with wide eyes, like a kid in a candy store.
He's knows what's coming, and he couldn't be more excited.
“I think guys realize it’s pretty wide-open this year,” Connolly said Saturday. “Four months is a summer, it’s an offseason. You can tell, everybody’s fresh and everybody realizes that it’s a brand-new season.”
Connolly, two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, has firsthand knowledge of what kind of roller coaster ride a postseason run can feel like.
Line combinations, ice time, situational roles…it all can go right out the window when you're fighting tooth and nail in the playoffs.
“We’re going to need everybody here,” Connolly said. “There will be guys who play more than others on a given night, so hopefully we can be good teammates, push each other and see who steps up.”
When camp opened on Monday, Connolly found himself skating with some familiar linemates.
Centering the unit was Brian Boyle, one of Connolly's closest friends on the team, and newcomer Lucas Wallmark, who had been skating on a line with Connolly since arriving in Florida at the Trade Deadline.
"I've been comfortable with Wally," Connolly said. "When he came over in the Trocheck trade, I was with him right away. Boiler, I have some history with him, we played together when I was in Tampa. Just two guys that I'm comfortable with, and we've been having a lot of fun."
Saturday marked exactly two weeks until the Panthers and Islanders face off in Game 1 of their Qualifying Round series.
For the past year, Florida has been stockpiling veteran leaders who have not only played in plenty of playoff games, but won a good amount of them.
Connolly knows why the Panthers pursued him last summer, and signing on the dotted line was his way of signaling that he was up for the challenge.
"That's a big reason why we're here. I think the guys here who have gone on playoff runs, Acciari, Boyle, Stralman, for us, right from the first drop of the puck, you have to play the right way, because it really is a different game and it changes quickly," Connolly said. "We know what's coming and we're prepared. For the guys who haven't been in the playoffs, those first couple shifts in the first period, two periods…it's a different game."
When it comes to setting an example for the younger, less experienced players, Connolly understands that it goes well beyond just what happens on the ice.
It's creating the right kind of habits and making sure all the little things are done to perfection.
Connolly also said it's the veteran players' job to "be there to listen, to help and to lead by example."
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and I think we have a great group of guys that care about each other, and that’s what we’re going to need. Hopefully we can surprise a lot of people.”