SUNRISE, Fla. – The term work in progress has been used quite a bit around the Florida Panthers this season.
From head coach Joel Quenneville to players throughout the locker room, this season has been as much about education as it has execution.
The ebbs and flows of a normal hockey season have felt magnified as Quenneville's roster navigated an early-season schedule that doubled as a minefield, working through injuries to key players and inconsistency in the goal crease while learning Q's systems and adapting to new teammates.
But throughout all the bumps in the road, meetings about special teams and almost daily video sessions, Florida has either been in possession of a coveted playoff spot or within striking distance of one.
Remember back in mid-December when Florida lost three straight games to Tampa, the Islanders and Boston during that monster nine-game homestand?
"Our last three games, you can take chunks out of it and you can say it's not even close to being good enough," Quenneville said at the time. "We're at home, and it's unacceptable."
Those three frustratingly tight games in which the Panthers just couldn't seem to get anything going may have been the catalyst for things to begin changing.
Q held an upbeat, spirited practice at the Panthers Ice Den the following day and both Quenneville and the players seemed reinvigorated afterwards, perhaps ready to turn a corner.
"In our business, it's one day at a time," Q said after the Sunday morning workout. "Your next game is your biggest game, and your best challenge."
Whether it’s been a day-by-day mentality or just the next phase in their maturation, the Panthers appear to have hit a new gear.
In the 17 games since those three consecutive losses, Florida has gone 13-4-0. They have not been perfect, and a couple of those four losses can be filed in the 'ugly' column (Columbus and Arizona come to mind).
But don't kid yourself; big picture-wise, that's above average hockey played for nearly a quarter of the season. It's a 125 point pace stretched out over an 82 game schedule. And what's becoming increasingly clear is they're only starting to scratch the surface of what this team is capable of.
Nobody expects the Panthers to maintain that kind of pace, but seeing such progress and ability to claw out wins that, in past years, probably would have at least ended with a frustrating consolation point (Montreal, Minnesota, possibly Los Angeles) cannot and should not be overlooked.
"We're a tougher team to play against," Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. "When we play well, everybody's involved in the game; all four lines and all the defensemen. That's how we've got to play, that's how we're going to win some games and be a tough team to play against."
WE’RE GOING STREAKING
When the Panthers began a stretch of four straight home games, their only ones at the BB&T Center during the month of January, the discussion around the dressing room was going into the All-Star Break on a high note.
Six straight wins later and Florida couldn't be higher heading into their extended winter break.
"We said we wanted to go on a little streak before the All-Star break, and that's what we did," said Huberdeau. "Now we just have to relax and get some more energy and come back for the second half. The rest of the season is going to be tough, we have to be prepared for that."
Thanks to the sudden string of victories, Florida now sits alone in third place of the top-heavy Atlantic Division, four points ahead of Toronto and just one point back of Tampa Bay.
Additionally, the seemingly insurmountable task of catching the first place Bruins is suddenly within reason as the Panthers, who have played two less games than Boston, are just nine points behind.
“We achieved our goal before the break, we’re right where we want to be,” Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky said. “We have to have a good break now. Reset, refocus, re-energize and get ready for the most important part of the season.”
HUBY TO ST. LOUIE
While the rest of the team will take some time away from hockey, Huberdeau will head to St. Louis on Thursday for the NHL's annual All-Star Weekend.
Huby was selected as Florida's lone participant to share in the superstar spotlight.
"It's going to be fun," he said. "My first experience, I'm going to try and enjoy it as much as I can."
One thing that Huberdeau has mentioned on multiple occasions over the past few weeks is the Skills Competition, which takes place Friday night.
Huberdeau’s talents are likely to be put on display during the NHL Save Streak event, which is basically a fast paced shootout, and possibly at a new event this year called the NHL Shooting Stars, which can best be described as a hockey version of visiting Topgolf.
"I'm going to enjoy the time," Huberdeau said. "Skills (Competition) will be fun, and after that, the game. It's going to be a fun time."
Many of Huberdeau's teammates have already said they'll be watching and cheering on their top line winger, and even Coach Q admitted he'd check it out while on break.
“We’ll tune in,” he said with his patented Q-smirk. “Huby, well deserved. He’s had a special first part of the year and had some tremendous plays. I’m happy for him. He accomplished a lot this year in a short amount of time.”