TORONTO – There has been a quiet confidence brewing among the Florida Panthers during the team's ten days inside the Toronto bubble.
That might seem odd considering the Cats have looked anything but good during their three games at Scotiabank Arena, but the collective vibe of 'things are going to be alright' has been projecting from every Panthers player that has stepped to the podium during the group's stay north of the border.
Head coach Joel Quenneville and his new, success-starved franchise came into Wednesday’s action facing an 0-2 hole in their best-of-five Qualifying Round series against the New York Islanders, but there was no sense of panic or anxiety among anyone on the team.
Despite nine periods of mostly forgettable hockey and a situation that few teams have the collective ability to overcome, the mood among Panthers players has been calm, cool and collected.
"We just wanted to play a simpler game and a harder game," veteran center Brian Boyle said Wednesday. "We're not where we want to be in the series, but we can only control today."
And that they did, in more ways than one.
Boyle and his Panthers teammates controlled Game 3 by attacking and possessing the puck, keeping it deep in the Islanders zone for extended shifts and playing a much tighter, cleaner game in their own end.
They controlled the day by picking up Florida's first postseason win in over four years, keeping their playoff hopes alive and forcing a Game 4 on Friday.
"You can't dwell on what happened in those first two games," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "You have to move forward, and we did tonight in a big way."
The Qualifying Round has almost become a microcosm of Florida's roller coaster of a regular season, as the team has struggled to find its identity, trying to get by more on style and skill than on hard work and grit.
Quenneville has been preaching simplicity and trust as the Panthers have attempted to work their way back into form, but two quick losses to the Islanders had Florida's hourglass on the brink of running dry.
Fortunately for these Cats, Q's message appears to have gotten through just in the nick of time.
"We worked together as a team," Quenneville said of the Game 3 win. "It wasn't like we played a fancy game. I think when we get that simpler mindset, it's effective."
Added Ekblad: "We're trying not to get too high or too low. Going down two-nothing is heartbreaking at times, but at the end of the day, we're going to take it one game at a time."
BOB IN THE ZONE
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky's first season in Florida has been anything but a walk in the park.
The two-time Vezina Trophy winner was the Panthers’ top target in free agency. They offered him a massive 7-year, $70 million contract in the hopes of ending a leaky goaltending issue that has plagued the franchise in recent years.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bob's arrival in South Florida didn't come without an adjustment period. Uprooting one's entire life, moving into a new home in a strange city, building relationships with new teammates and adjusting to a new head coach's style of play is never going to be a smooth transition.
In that sense, the NHL's pause and subsequent four month break due to the coronavirus pandemic provided Bobrovsky the opportunity to settle into his new life and allow his body to heal after a highly stressful and physically tolling first campaign with the Panthers.
He came back for Phase 3 rested and rejuvenated, ready to flip the script on his debut season in South Florida.
So far in Toronto, he's arguably been the most consistently solid Panthers player.
"I've felt pretty good," Bobrovsky said after Wednesday's win. "Today was one of those games where they didn't shoot much, but the shots [they did get] were dangerous. In a big moment, you want to step up and make the play that needs to be made."
Playoff Bob is exactly who Florida hoped they were getting when they signed him to that life-changing contract over a year ago.
Since the puck dropped on Game 1 last Saturday, Bobrovsky has been locked in, laser-focused and stopping high-danger opportunities left and right.
"He's got to be our best player, and he was tonight," said Boyle. "There are moments in a game where you can gain momentum, or you can lose momentum. When he makes those big saves, it could go either way, and he certainly kept pushing us forward and keeping our momentum."
There was a mutual admiration between the 35-year-old center and his goaltender on Wednesday.
During Bobrovsky's postgame media availability, he made sure to single out Boyle while heaping praise on the efforts of his colleagues.
"It was a big game for us, a big game mentally," said Bob. "Every guy in the locker room elevated his game. Guys had huge blocked shots; they raised the level. Brian Boyle, our veteran, led the way. Everyone stepped up, from the D to the forwards.
"It's fun to be part of this kind of environment."
HUBY DOOBIE DOOING OK?
Late in the third period, Panthers All-Star winger Jonathan Huberdeau suffered what appeared to be a lower-body injury. He was seen skating gingerly off the ice before speaking to Florida’s training staff at the end of the bench.
When Quenneville sent his top line out for a pair of shifts during the game's final five minutes, Huberdeau was kept off the ice.
After the game, Quenneville didn't seem overly concerned about Huberdeau's status for Game 4, but you wouldn't expect a veteran coach like Q to give away any information that would potentially help his opponent.
"He was battling through some things," Quenneville said. "We'll see how he is. We're hopeful he'll be fine."
Huberdeau has a goal and an assist during the three playoff games against the Islanders.