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Running in place: Panthers working hard, not getting results in standings

Fresh off Tuesday’s disappointing loss to Arizona, Florida kicked off Wednesday’s practice with a surprisingly fun drill

Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers takes down Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes in front of the net at the BB&T Center on January 7, 2020.
Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers takes down Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes in front of the net at the BB&T Center on January 7, 2020. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – When examining the Florida Panthers schedule over the past month, a frustrating pattern begins to emerge.

Florida's 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, all the way back on Nov. 19, put the team six games above .500 at 11-5-5. It's a respectable record for any team early in the season.

A lot has happened in and around the Panthers during the 22 games since that night in mid-November.

Florida won three games out of four twice during that span, and there's even a three-game winning streak tossed in there.

So how come the Panthers, almost exactly seven weeks later, are still sitting six games above .500?

For a team that has been preaching the importance of consistency in recent weeks, I don't think going 11-11-0 during the equivalent of the second quarter of the season is what the coaching staff had in mind.

"We need to just dig deep here," Panthers forward Noel Acciari said after Florida's loss to Arizona Tuesday. "We can’t be going back and forth. We need to string together three or four wins in a row to separate ourselves from the bottom of the division, so that we can have a little bit of a cushion.

"Right now, it's not going right for us, but I have faith in this locker room, and we all know what we need to do."

Florida enters Thursday on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.

Through 43 games, the Panthers hold a 22-16-5 record, good for fourth place in the Atlantic Division, five points behind Toronto (45 games played) for third, and a guaranteed playoff spot.

Additionally, Florida is three points back of the aforementioned Flyers (44 games played) for the final Wild Card spot.

It’s not an ideal situation, but there’s no denying that the Panthers are right there, and with games in hand.

But they've also been 'right there' all season, and every player in that locker room knows that alternating wins and losses, which the Cats have literally done over their past six games, will not cut it.

"Every game is important," said Florida goaltender Chris Driedger. "We’re flirting with that last Wild Card spot, so every game, every period, every save, is important."

Despite Tuesday's loss to the Coyotes, there is still a good opportunity for the Panthers to turn the tide in their favor in the coming days.

After starting the New Year with a seven day road trip that took them through four cities, Florida will be home for a total of 12 days before they hit the pavement again.

Getting back into a routine, with scheduled practices at the team facility in Coral Springs, home games at BB&T Center and nights sleeping on familiar pillows in familiar beds, could be just what the doctor ordered.

"Hockey is a big game of momentum, and it seems you almost have to keep it simple to get it," Panthers forward Mike Hoffman said. "We want to take care of what we can in this room. Each team has special players so going night to night is kind of in the same boat, (we) just might have to adjust a few things here or there. The main goal: we want to focus on how we start the games, and how we play our game.

"Once you get (momentum), just keep working hard and put (the opposition) in spots where they can make mistakes. The same thing goes for us. We have to play the right way, and try and limit our turnovers and mistakes."

POND HOCKEY IN SOUTH FLORIDA

Walking into the Panthers practice facility for Wednesday's scheduled workout, it was clear something different was happening on the ice.

It was a scrimmage-looking drill, which seems normal enough, except that every single Florida player, and even a few coaches, were all on the ice, at the same time, going after the same puck.

It looked like chaos. It looked like anarchy.

And boy oh boy, did it look like a good time.

"It was fun," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said afterwards. "Something different. It's the first time we did that drill, (one) we always use at certain times of the season. The guys enjoy it. It's a little pond hockey action. It got everybody loosened up for practice. We had fun with it."

Considering the mood of the players, and Quenneville, after Tuesday's loss to the Yotes, there was a reasonable expectation that Wednesday's practice would not be a particularly enjoyable one.

Yeah, so much for that.

"Everybody came into the rink pretty frustrated today," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said. "It's nice to have some fun out there and remind yourselves of how lucky we are to play the game. Sometimes, that kind of ignites a bit of energy in the group."

Said Hoffman: "Sometime those things are needed. It engages everyone in the practice. Go out there and have a little fun, battling back and forth, starting practice off the right way."

It's just another example of how Quenneville can keep his players on their toes, but in the best of ways.

Heading to the rink with a collective dark cloud hovering over the team, having some fun, not only with teammates, but getting the coaches involved as well, is the kind of surprise that infused some real positive life and energy into the entire group.

After watching the competitive, slightly confusing bedlam (you try keeping track of 20 players crammed inside of an offensive zone), it begged the question of where Quenneville came up with the idea for a drill (or, let's be honest, it was a game) like that.

"I'd seen it before, early in my coaching career," he explained. "It's one of those drills that gets a little camaraderie, yelling, screaming, having fun."

And the coaches got into it as well, didn’t they?

“Oh yeah, they got drafted,” Q said, flashing a grin. “They might have been arguing about who they wanted (on their team). I think V (Panthers skills coach Paul Vincent) was probably on everybody’s list.”

After pausing for a nice, group laugh, Quenneville finished his thought.

"I make the lineups," he said. "It was a very close game. It was fun. They had fun with it."

I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW

Florida defenseman Keith Yandle hit a personal milestone on Tuesday, one that he'd been looking forward to for what felt like an eternity.

For the first time nearly two months, Yandle was able to play without a protective face shield attached to his helmet.

It something he'd been itching to shed, but had to wait for medical clearance.

Florida Panthers' Keith Yandle is seen during an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.
Florida Panthers' Keith Yandle is seen during an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

Back on Nov. 23 in Carolina, Yandle to an errant puck to the face late in the first period. He immediately went to the Panthers dressing room after losing nine teeth, and did not return to the game.

For about an hour.

Yandle was back on the ice for the third period and finished the game before flying home with the team, spending a few hours at the dentist, and playing the next night when Florida wrapped up a back-to-back set at home against Buffalo.

It wasn't terribly surprising for a couple of reasons.

One- He's a hockey player. 'Nuff said.

Two- He's also the NHL's premiere 'Iron Man'.

Yanlde hasn't missed a match since the 2008-09 season, a streak currently sitting at 840 consecutive regular season games. (The NHL record, for those wondering, belongs to Doug Jarvis at 964 straight games).

During a chat in mid-December, Yandle wasn’t shy about sharing his desire to get rid of the bulky addition to his helmet.

"I can't f-ing wait," he said.

At the time, he thought he was about a week away from getting approval to play without it, saying the medical staff wanted to let the area around and behind his upper lip heal a bit more.

Fast-forward to Tuesday night, where Yandle was finally able to skate without the restrictions of the facial hindrance.

“I couldn’t move freely,” he admitted Wednesday. “I’d have to tilt my whole head to look down. It got fogged up. Really annoying.”

As much as he hated wearing it, and boy did he, it didn't limit his production.

In 19 games with the unofficial facewash protector, Yandle recorded 14 points (2-12-14) while playing his usual 20-ish minutes per game.


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