SUNRISE, Fla. – The NHL's holiday break provides players, coaches and staff some much-needed time off at the end of December, but it also doubles as the unofficial halfway point of the season.
Florida entered the break having played 36 games, holding a good-but-not-great record of 18-13-5.
41 points through 36 games is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a franchise that is notorious for being much further behind the proverbial eight ball at this stage of the season.
It stretches out to a pace of 93 points over an 82-game schedule, which is right on the cusp of where you want to be; a playoff spot.
Generally, finishing in the mid-90s is good enough to get into the dance.
Looking at this Panthers group, however, it seems safe to say that their best hockey is still ahead of them.
"There's been some ups and downs, that's how the season goes, but we feel like we still have more to give in here," said Panthers forward Mike Hoffman. "We know we've still got to get better. There's still room for improvement. We're taking the steps to make that next step as a team."
There is no denying the talent on Florida's roster.
The forward group is one of the deepest in Panthers history, and as a whole, the team is scoring at a clip never before seen by this franchise.
Currently Florida is averaging 3.52 goals per game.
To put that into perspective, last season the team averaged a franchise-best 3.25 goals per game.
It was just the fourth time ever that the team averaged more than three goals per game, and two of those seasons have come in the past two years (the others were 95-96 and 06-07).
The cream in Florida's talent pool is rising to the top, and that, combined with new head coach Joel Quenneville's aggressive, defensive schemes, have many thinking the sky is the limit for this team.
"We definitely know the systems at this point," said Panthers forward Colton Sceviour. "You can say there's a learning curve, but now it's just making sure everyone is on the same page and reminding ourselves, and reminding each other, what the systems are, day in and day out, so we can do it every game and build that consistency in the way we play."
That’s a word that was at the lips of several Panthers players when asked what may be holding the team back from hitting its stride during the second half of the season.
"We just need to play more consistent, play the same way every night," Panthers winger Frank Vatrano said. "There's games where we've played great and games where we've lagged for over twenty minutes, and it hurts us. We have to make sure we play a full sixty (minutes) every night, and we'll end up on the right side of things."
"Our biggest thing is just being consistent and winning games, and doing it the right way," defenseman Keith Yandle said. "Not being happy with being mediocre, or winning one game here or one game there. We've got to drill it in here and give yourself a chance to win every night."
"Absolutely, consistency," said defenseman Josh Brown. "It's every shift, not taking a shift off, every period, every game. I think we can go to a higher level, and I think we're going to get there."
"I think just a little bit more consistency, that's probably the biggest thing," said Hoffman. "This team has a lot of potential and ability, we've just got to be able to do it night in and night out."
You can't fault the team for being cautiously optimistic at this point.
Clearly, there is a strong belief among the players and staff that there is another level they can, and will, reach.
Between the coaches, the offensive success and the overall, undeniable talent on the roster, it's not unreasonable to believe that Q's squad will be hitting its stride during the second half of the season.
What that ultimately will mean, and where the Panthers will end up, is a script that has yet to be written.
But when those pages begin to fill with the tales of Florida’s remaining 46 games, and potentially beyond, it could end up being a story that will be long remembered by Panthers fans for years to come.
“I think it’s one of those years we’re really building towards something, hopefully something special,” Yandle said. “We’re not quite at the halfway mark, and it’s still a lot of fun to come to the rink and be a part of this group, and to go to battle with these guys, every day.”