CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – The sounds are unmistakable.
Skates cutting into freshly cleaned ice, players laughing and chirping at each other, coaches’ voices booming across a mostly empty arena.
Hockey is finally back.
On Monday, NHL teams across two countries were able to hit the ice in an official capacity for the first time in months.
The Florida Panthers were one of those teams, opening their second training camp of the 2019-20 season on Monday at the Ice Den in Coral Springs as they prepare to face the New York Islanders in the Qualifying Round of the NHL's 24-team postseason.
"Very, very positive opening day."
Panthers Coach Joel Quenneville admitted that he was expecting an "OK" practice but was pleasantly surprised with how well the players looked and how much juice they had.
"I was shocked today how well it went," he said with a smile growing under his trademark silver mustache. "I was surprised that the guys had that much pace and energy to their game."
Quennevile said Monday's skate was on par with Florida's best practices of the season, which says a lot about the kind of shape that the Panthers players kept themselves in during the pause.
"I think the adrenaline from being back on the ice and being with all the guys, it was a great first day back," Panthers center Noel Acciari said.
It's a sentiment that was felt throughout the locker room.
For some, Monday was like the first day of school, with conversations about what guys did and who binge watched what shows while everyone was quarantining at home during the pause. But there were others, like Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who felt like no time had passed at all.
"Actually, it didn't feel like it was our first practice, it felt like we just came after a little All-Star break or something," Barkov said. "The pace was really high and everybody battled hard."
Before Florida's players and coaches took the ice as a unit for the first time since mid-March, everyone gathered, safely and socially distant, for an educational team meeting.
The Panthers' medical staff spoke to the group, going through the safety protocols that have been put in place at the Ice Den, and ways to best practice those measures when outside of the rink.
Between now and July 23, when each NHL team will travel to their respective hub city and enter the league's quarantine bubble, all players, coaches and staff members must be responsible for their own health.
At a time when cases of COVID-19 are spiking at an unprecedented level across South Florida, Acciari stressed the importance of being careful at places you have to visit, like the grocery store, or "maybe not going out to eat" while training camp is ongoing.
"We're all big boys and we've got to be smart," said Acciari. "It's not only affecting themselves, its affecting 30 other guys, and out of respect for your teammates, you want to be smart."
Said Quenneville: "Our priority here is for their safety and their health. That's first and foremost."
IF IT AIN’T BROKE
Quenneville said the forward lines, at least for now, would be the same ones he used during Florida's final two games of the regular season.
That means a top line of Aleksander Barkov centering Frank Vatrano and Evgenii Dadonov, and a second unit of Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman flanking Erik Haula in the middle.
"We felt that going into the break we had some success with those lines," Quenneville said.
The Triple-H line of Haula, Hoffman and Huberdeau was on the ice for some dominant shifts against Montreal and St. Louis, so it makes sense that Q would let things play out and see what the trio can accomplish together moving forward.
Quenneville also said he plans to keep defenseman-turned-forward Mark Pysyk on the wing, and that he liked the combination of Pysyk skating with Noel Acciari and Colton Sceviour.
"They're useful in a lot of ways," Q said of the line. "I like having that versatility in our back pocket."
Another guy that could find himself playing some crucial shifts during the postseason is veteran center Brian Boyle.
Injured immediately following the All-Star break in Montreal, Boyle missed the final 19 games of the season and was on the cusp of breaking back into the lineup when the pandemic hit.
Now, Boyle is healed, healthy and full of energy.
He also has a wealth of playoff experience and knowledge, which is a big part of why the Panthers signed him earlier this season. If Florida is going to make any kind of playoff run, Boyle is a player that Quenneville and his staff know they can lean on to play big, important minutes.
"Boy, he makes a presence on your team and you notice him on the ice," Q said Monday, adding that he thought Boyle skated "extremely well" during the practice session.
"He's a tremendous leader and seems to fit in nicely with the guys. He really adds a lot to our team and I'm looking forward to having him in our lineup."
WHAT ABOUT BOB?
Quenneville said that Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas was "raving" about how good goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky looked during Monday's practice and that he was impressed with Bob's performance.
"You've got to love his attitude," Quenneville said of Bobrovsky. "He's handled this process like a real good pro and he's doing everything he can to focus and concentrate."
During Phase 2, Bobrovsky and Tallas spent a lot of time together at the Ice Den, tweaking Bob's game and fine-tuning some issues that popped up during the season.
Reading and following plays, and staying patient in the crease, were just a couple of the things that they worked on during the stoppage, and that work will continue as Florida prepares for what they hope will be a long playoff run.
"He's one of those real focused guys, where he tries to do everything he can to get the best out of himself," Q said of Bob. "He's committed to doing whatever it takes."
A NEW NORMAL
Quenneville, Barkov and Acciari each discussed how different things are with the COVID-19 safety protocols in effect at the Ice Den, and the quarantine situation waiting for them in the NHL's safety bubble, which is where all players and coaches will be living in when the team travels to Toronto later this month.
Quenneville: “It’s going to be new for everybody. I think you’re just going to have to be safe and be smart about it. I think you’ll be a little more familiar with it as time goes on. I think it’s a little bit about the world we’ve been in for the last I don’t know how many days.”
Barkov: "You have to wear a mask in the locker room and stuff like that, but everybody knows why and everybody is taking it seriously. Our trainers take everything seriously, they prepare everything (for us)."
Acciari: “This is our job, we’re paid to be here. The ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup and to have the opportunity to be playing for it is something special. You don’t always get that opportunity. It’s going to be tough to leave (my newborn son) Greyson for potentially the first two months of his life, but hopefully we can bring back the Cup and it’ll all be worth it.”