SUNRISE, Fla. – The National Hockey League's 2019-20 season has been on hold for over a month now, as the sports world continues to wait for the global coronavirus pandemic to subside.
When the NHL hit the pause button back on March 12, the Florida Panthers appeared to be on the brink of an exciting run towards a coveted playoff spot.
Following an incredibly frustrating month of February that saw them go 5-9-2, Florida's final three games before the stoppage were three of their best of the year.
The 2-0-1 stretch, capped off by an exhilarating 2-1 road win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues, helped the Panthers climb back into a neck-and-neck race for both an Atlantic Division playoff position and an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot.
Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, speaking to the media via Zoom video chat on Tuesday, compared the brief resurgence to a six-game winning streak Florida embarked on in late January, a run that was abruptly halted due to the NHL All-Star Game.
"I thought we exited on a real high note," Quenneville said. "It was very comparable to when we went into the All-Star break. We had great momentum at that time. It's a good education going into this process today."
Quenneville's Panthers, and the rest of the NHL, remain in self-isolation, anxiously waiting for some semblance of hope that the season can be salvaged.
In the meantime, Q said he's been hanging out at home with his wife, keeping in touch with his players and coaching staff during a time that’s unlike anything they could have thought to prepare for.
"I talk to a lot of different people, whether it's our coaches or other coaches, and (Panthers General Manager) Dale (Tallon)," he said. "We're anxious to see if we're going to play or not."
Quenneville said he's aware of the different potential options that have been floating around; finishing the regular season on a condensed schedule, jumping into a playoff format that would include upwards of 24 teams or just starting with the playoffs based on the current league standings, which would have Florida on the outside looking in.
"It would be a lot to shot for, but it would be a lot of fun," Q said of playing with a condensed schedule. "If it's going to be a finish of the regular season, it's going to be a mad sprint; those games are going to be like playoff games."
As for the other possible options, Quenneville seemed on board for whatever the league decides, but obviously is hoping for a situation that includes Florida continuing their season, one way or another.
"Whether it's going to be neutral site games, empty buildings; hockey players are competitors, we're going to be playing for the Cup," he said, indicating that his players would be ready for whatever is thrown their way. "It's still a long ways away, and we're still waiting for a lot of questions to be answered."
READY TO ROLL
Quenneville has kept tabs on his players during the pause and seemed pleased with how they’ve been maintaining their bodies for what they hope will be the conclusion of the season.
"The guys have been doing a great job to do what they can to stay in shape," he said, adding that they've discussed being prepared for any situation they could be thrown into.
Quenneville explained that the mindset would be different than anything they've had to deal with before.
“How are you going to get the players motivated? How are we going to play the right way? How are we going to play like it’s the most important game of the year?” he asked aloud, before answering that once games count, the adrenaline will be there, and “it wouldn’t take much to get that appetite going.”
As far as getting back into game shape, Quenneville thinks a two or three week training camp would be enough to get players ready to go.
He also mentioned that several players who had been battling injuries prior to the pause have had the opportunity to go through rehab and are anxious to get back into the swing of things.
“We got some guys that have been on the mend, they’re looking forward to playing again,” he said. “We’ve had the fortune of getting three or four guys back, and they’d be ready to go.”
While Q didn’t mention anyone by name, a few players that come to mind who had been out with injuries are Bryan Boyle (upper-body), Dryden Hunt (lower-body) and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (lower-body).
KEEPING BUSY IN QUARANTINE
Quenneville said things have "been kinda quiet" around his Boca Raton home over the past few weeks.
One thing he's enjoyed is watching past NHL games on TV.
Quenneville always watches every game his teams play at least one time once they're over, but he said he never watches the final game of the season.
The pause has given him the chance to re-live a few big games that, for whatever reason, he hadn't gotten around to watching again, such as the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup clinching win over the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, or (brace yourself Panthers fans) Colorado's triple overtime win over Florida in Game 4 of the 1996 Finals (he was an assistant on Marc Crawford's Avalanche staff that year).
"It was fun recapturing those moments," he said. "You really see the difference from a regular season game to a playoff game, and that's the fun part about our game."
As for the question probably on most people's minds; yes, Q has watched Tiger King.
“All I’ve heard is about this “Tiger King” thing for the past three or four weeks,” he said of the Netflix docu-series, explaining that his kids encouraged Q and his wife to check out Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and the rest of the ridiculous cast of characters.
"I started watching the first episode and I went 'well this is something else.' I don’t know how many people have asked me if I watched this thing. We ended up watching it all over the last few days, so I'm up to speed with it now."
Other than that, Q said he's been keeping up with the news and enjoying one of the few live sporting events still being held.
"Horse racing," he said with a smile. "I'm pretty passionate about watching and enjoying that sport, so I've been following that a little bit."
The Panthers were rounding the quarter pole and heading for the home stretch when the NHL pulled back on the reins of the season, so now we can only hope they’ll get a chance to resume their exciting gallop towards the finish line, once it’s safe to do so.