Panthers suddenly playing best hockey of season after hitting rock bottom during home losing streak

Showing newfound responsibility in defensive zone, Florida has surrendered just 4 goals over last 3 games

Florida Panthers' Brett Connolly is congratulated by teammates Aaron Ekblad, Lucas Wallmark and Aleksi Saarela after scoring during the third period against the St. Louis Blues Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS – You never want to get too high or too low.

That's the message regularly heard from Florida Panthers players and coaches as this season has progressed.

It explains why the team wasn't pumping their chests after winning six consecutive games in January, and why they weren't hitting the panic button after a troubling post-All-Star Game stretch in which they won just five of their next 18 games, a run that included a franchise-worst eight straight losses on home ice.

But it wasn't until after that eighth defeat, a discouraging 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames at the BB&T Center, where something finally began to change.

Following that game, the Panthers locker room was as silently angry as it had been all year.

Aside from the quiet movements of equipment staff and the brief, subdued comments from a couple of players, it was as though the media had walked into a library.

The once promising season was slipping away, and the team was running out of excuses to turn to.

Head coach Joel Quenneville, the second-winningest bench boss in NHL history, but in only his first season with Florida, needed to find the right button to push.

The loss to Calgary came on a Sunday evening. Quenneville, knowing Florida's next game wasn't until the following Thursday, told the team not to come in to work on Monday.

"We got a few days (between games) here and I think we can take tomorrow off and recap the tough moment you're in here, and then come in with an appetite Tuesday to be positive and be part of the solution," Quenneville said that night. "I still think there’s enough time to remedy it. We have to put ourselves in the position to win one game and get some momentum off of that, and go from there."

"I don't think you want to look at the big picture. We've got to narrow it down."

Quenneville, now in his fourth decade as an NHL head coach, has led teams through just about every situation imaginable. He knows what it takes to get into the playoffs, and how to win once there, but it's a lesson that few around the Panthers have had the opportunity to learn.

"I think we maybe took for granted how difficult it is to win in the second half of the year," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said after the loss. "I think maybe a day away from the rink is a good thing. Hopefully the guys have some quality time with their families and (we) really look all of ourselves in the mirror and just find a way."

"At the end of the day, it’s on all of us in here to right the ship."

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad speaks to the media in the team's locker room following a 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on March 1, 2020. (David Dwork - WPLG)

The team reconvened at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs two days later and held practices on consecutive days, though the first one started nearly an hour late as players and coaches held an extended meeting in the team's locker room.

Discussed were the things that Florida needed to do in order to turn the tide on their season. The little things. The hard-working, less-flashy things that you see from teams that have success in March, April and beyond.

In the practices that followed over the next two days, the on-ice sessions were the usual, up-tempo workouts Quenneville has been running all season, though there were also the expected, tight spaced, one-on-one board and puck battles Q likes to run, with the nets pushed into the corners to shrink the ice on his players and force them to throw their bodies around.

After each workout, everyone seemed in good spirits. The team was looking ahead, focusing on the tasks in front of them and not the failures of the past.

"We addressed some things we think we can get better at," center Erik Haula said of the pre-practice meetings. "There are some areas that we clarified, and I think the Panthers got better today. You're going to see a different team on Thursday."

Interestingly enough, the player who has been with the Panthers the least amount of time (Haula and Lucas Wallmark were acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline just over two weeks ago) seems to have his finger squarely placed on the pulse of the team.

In the three games since that disheartening loss to Calgary, and the two days of practice that proceeded it, Florida has played perhaps its best and most consistent brand of hockey this season.

Now, suddenly, the team is doing all the little things needed to play winning, playoff hockey.

They’re winning board battles.

They’re blocking shots like hotcakes, showing the kind of disregard for their bodies generally reserved for hockey games played after April 1st. (I see you, Noel Acciari and MacKenzie Weegar).

The defensive zone toughness doesn’t stop there, though. Suddenly, the Panthers are protecting their goal crease as if there’s a newborn baby wearing goalie pads. Taking an extra slash at the goaltender, something that went seemingly ignored for most of the season, garners the quick attention of whichever Panthers player is close enough to give the unwanted slasher a retaliatory punch, shove or cross check.

A good example of this came Monday night in St. Louis, when Mike Matheson, possibly the kindest and most laid back, soft spoken guy on the team, made a point to violently shove a Blues forward away from his goaltender after a light slash.

This is a play that may not have even registered for most people watching the game, but it’s a clear indication of a change in the team’s mindset.

It’s time to get nasty.

But that's not all.

The Panthers are killing penalties, they’re scoring timely goals, they’re gumming up the neutral zone.

While it makes for a less-exciting brand of hockey, Florida appears to be finding its groove at the most important part of the season.

It also helps that they’re getting spectacular goaltending from Chris Driedger, who has logged a 2-0-1 record and stopped 85 of 89 shots (a .955 save percentage) thrown his way during Florida's three-game resurgence.

"He likes a challenge," Quenneville said after Monday's 2-1 road win over the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. "He's very composed, real patient in the net. He follows the puck, he doesn't get excited, his rebound control is (effective), he looks big, and he takes care of business. You've got to commend him in playing some big games for us at a big time of the year."

The Panthers will practice on Tuesday at the Children’s Health StarCenter in Farmers Branch, Texas and take Wednesday off before concluding their brief, two-game road trip against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.

Depending how things shake out between now and then, Florida may have the opportunity to move back into a playoff spot with a victory over the Stars.

Heading into Tuesday's games, the Cats are one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division, and one point back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the final Eastern Conference Wild Card spot as well.

With 13 games still remaining on the schedule, the Panthers are in prime position to overcome their horrendous February and qualify for the playoffs while performing at their highest level.

It's something few would have predicted just one week ago.

"It's the best time of the year," Panthers winger Brett Connolly said. "You work so hard to put yourself in a position to get in the postseason, and this is the time where guys are giving a little extra.

“We just have to keep building. We’re right there. We just have to block out all the noise that’s coming from outside and just worry about our team.”

About the Author: