SUNRISE, Fla. – There was never any doubt that the Florida Panthers were capable of more than what they'd accomplished in recent years.
Hiring Joel Quenneville and spending up to the cap only emphasized a message that had already been delivered, that this ownership group was willing to do whatever it took in order to get Florida to the next level.
As summer turned to fall, playoff predictions became common.
Finally, the Panthers had the support and resources to reach their potential, whatever that may be.
Nobody could've seen this coming.
Teams will come back from three-goal deficits once in a while, and a four-goal comeback is not unheard of.
What is unheard of, however, is for one team to embark on a three-goal comeback and a pair of four-goal comebacks, not only in the same season, but all in the span of about five weeks.
“We’re confident we can come back in any situation,” Defenseman Aaron Ekblad said after scoring the winning goal in Florida’s latest come from behind win, a 5-4 overtime triumph over Anaheim. "We don’t want to be in that situation all that often, but it’s a huge win.”
It's clear that the Panthers are a team that is still figuring things out.
There are stretches of play that leave scowls on the faces of coaches and have fans scratching their heads, unable to comprehend how a team that can look so good, can also look so vulnerable.
But holy cow, can they score.
Florida currently leads the NHL in goals per game, averaging 3.68 through 22 outings. The Panthers' 81 goals are second only to the Washington Capitals, who have scored 87, but in two more games played than the Cats.
That kind of potency on offense has afforded the Panthers to survive those rough patches and still come out on top.
"We've had four wins that have been pretty amazing," Quenneville said after Thursday's victory over the Ducks. "Boston one was highly improbable. This one was the same way."
Added Ekblad: "We just catch a spark and we run with it."
That must be some spark.
To review, here are the four comebacks Quenneville mentioned.
On Oct. 14 at New Jersey, Florida won 6-4 after trailing 4-1 midway through the second period. It was big, at the time, as the Cats entered the game with a 1-2-2 record. It was the last time they were under .500.
Two weeks later the Panthers were in Colorado, wrapping up their first extended road trip of the season. Florida had just been shellacked 7-2 in Vancouver, a game that ended the Panthers' 8-game points streak.
In a tight game, the Avalanche took a 3-1 lead 7:37 into the third period. Not batting an eye, Florida's top line took over after that, leading to Jonathan Huberdeau's tying goal with 90 seconds left, and his winning goal 29 seconds into overtime.
Fast forward another two weeks. The Panthers were in Boston, playing in a building that has been a house of horrors over the years for the Cats.
Teams rarely come back to win games when down after two periods, regardless of how much they might be training by, though obviously the odds of a comeback go down even farther as the deficit grows.
Florida entered the third period against the Bruins down 4-0.
As Ekblad explains, the team knows what it's capable of, and their belief never waivers.
"We’re sitting on the bench and goals are going in, but no one is freaking out," he said when asked how Florida has handled falling behind so often. "Everybody is calm, cool and collected."
That might be the case, but the Panthers looked anything but calm, cool and collected as they scored four unanswered goals in Boston to force the game to overtime, and eventually a shootout.
Vincent Trocheck, Florida's newest shootout specialist, and Mike Hoffman delivered the deciding blows, and backup goalie Samuel Montembeault stopped three of four to give the Panthers the most improbable two points in franchise history.
Shock. Amazement. Astonishment. Bewilderment.
It all applied.
How in the world did they do that?
Still searching for the answers a couple weeks later, these cool Cats somehow did it again.
This time perhaps even more improbable, as it was probably their worst extended stretch of hockey this season that preceded the comeback.
Florida was getting outworked and outplayed against Anaheim on Thursday.
"Flat was the right word," Quenneville said. "It was used by us, knowing that whatever line, whatever we could try to generate some pace to our game, zone time, possession time, (there was) nothing happening."
And then, as Ekblad said, came the spark.
Fourteen seconds after falling behind 4-0, Brett Connolly snapped a wrist shot between the arm and body of Anaheim goalie John Gibson.
The bench jumped up. The building came alive.
Before public address announcer Andrew Imber could get through Connolly's goal call, the sniping winger scored again, just 27 seconds later.
In the blink of an eye, everything had changed.
"Huge," Quenneville said of Connolly's first goal. "The first one made it all of a sudden 4-1, (and) you think you’ve got a sniff. All of a sudden, you get the next one, and you think okay, we’ve had some amazing comebacks, and I think that got everybody excited after two."
There is something quite different about this Panthers team.
After 22 games, Florida sits in second place in the Atlantic Division with a 12-5-5 record and 29 points in the bank.
It's not the best start to a season in franchise history, but it's close.
Top to bottom, from Quenneville on down the roster, everyone in the Panthers dressing room knows this team can be better. They expect to be better.
As they continue to work and move closer to playing the way Q envisions, the offensive firepower has taken what would have been some demoralizing defeats and turned them into inspiring victories.
It's instilling the kind of trust and confidence that players need in each other if they're going to survive long playoff runs.
This group is well aware of what's growing in that locker room.
"It’s crazy," Ekblad said. "It’s all belief, from every guy.
“We’ve had a few good comebacks over the years, but a team this good, doing it consecutive weeks, it’s unheard of.”