CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – After enduring what felt like an eternity without hockey, the now-concluded Florida Panthers postseason training camp went by in the blink of an eye.
Between diving headfirst back into the season and the anticipation of participating in a playoff series, the excitement level among Panthers players and coaches couldn't be higher as they are less than 24 hours away from going wheels up to Toronto and the NHL's quarantine bubble.
How consumed with hockey have they been? How amped up are they?
"I haven't packed anything yet," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said through a laugh.
"Actually, I'm going to start packing today," shrugged winger Lucas Wallmark.
Xbox consoles, laptops, iPads, golf clubs and who knows what else will be accompanying the Panthers north of the border, where they hope to be staying for the next couple months.
Even Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville couldn’t keep a grin from growing under his silver ‘stash when discussing the upcoming expedition.
"It's going to be a fun week, now that you can finally see the opponent," Quenneville said Saturday. "Hockey is back. It's going to be great right off the bat when we land."
Nearly two weeks of fast-paced, up-tempo practices and scrimmages are what the Panthers were provided in order to shake off any rust from the four month pause and prepare for the most important games of the season, a season which, by my calculations, is about to enter its eleventh month.
It's a completely unpredictable situation, as nobody has attempted to do what the NHL and its players are hoping to pull off between now and late September.
For their part, Quenneville and the Cats have worked diligently throughout the summer, when and where they could, to prepare for this.
Now, as the saying goes, it’s time to put up or shut up.
"We had a pretty good camp and we worked really hard," Barkov said. "Everybody is excited and now we're ready to go on a plane and fly to Toronto and get this thing started again."
Added Wallmark, who played in 15 postseason games with Carolina last season: "It's so much fun. It's those games you want to play. Winning a series and moving forward is a lot of fun, and you get really close with each other in the group. That feeling is really good."
After arriving in Toronto on Sunday afternoon, the Panthers won’t have much time before getting right back to work.
Florida will be on the ice for its first practice inside the quarantine bubble on Monday, though the location of that workout has yet to be revealed.
According to Quenneville, every team must give its players a day off during the first four days in the hub. For Florida, that day will be Tuesday.
It’s a smart move by the Panthers’ staff, giving the team some on-ice work right off the hop, then allowing them a day to process and get acclimated to life in the hub’s safe zone before things really kick into high gear.
Wednesday will be Florida’s noon exhibition contest against intrastate rival Tampa Bay, the one and only tune-up game provided to each team prior to the Qualifiers.
Thursday may or may not be a day off for the Cats, followed by a practice day on Friday.
Then Saturday arrives, and with it comes (pause for dramatic effect) Game 1 against the New York Islanders.
"Things are going to happen quickly," Quenneville said.
NO TIME TO THINK
The margin for error in a five-game series seems microscopic compared to when playing in a best-of-seven.
It’s something Quenneville has made clear that he’s very much aware of, knowing that the slightest hesitation by the coaching staff in making a decision could end up costing Florida dearly in their Qualifying Round series with the Isles.
“I think it’s like going into every game; we always play to win that game, and you worry about what’s going to happen after,” explained Quenneville. “Our leash might be shorter than some teams, but I think their performance is going to dictate in-game adjustments.”
In other words, don't get too comfortable with your linemates if the game isn't going well.
Quenneville has never been shy about shaking up his forward ranks during games, whether it be a Wednesday night in November or the first game of a playoff series.
It could be a line that for whatever reason isn’t clicking or showing much, or perhaps a matchup that didn’t produce the advantage previously expected. However things shake out, don’t expect Q to stand idly by without making some moves on the fly if things aren’t going the Panthers way.
"We're not going to sit and wait," Quenneville said. "In a short series, we're not going to hesitate to make moves that we feel will help our team."
Earlier this week the Panthers announced the team's radio coverage for the 2020 postseason.
560 The Joe will continue to be the flagship station for the Cats, broadcasting Wednesday’s exhibition game against Tampa Bay and every game in the Qualifying Round against the Islanders.
Play-by-play man Doug Plagens and color analyst Bill Lindsay will call all the action from here in South Florida, setting up shop in their usual perch high atop the BB&T Center.
Every broadcast will include a 30-minute pregame show, intermission reports and postgame coverage, all hosted by 560's Alex Donno.
For more information on the Panthers Radio Network, click here.