COLUMBUS, Ohio – Most teams don’t get a bye week when the season is less than a few days old, but most teams aren’t the Florida Panthers.
Florida’s first game didn’t arrive until day five of the NHL’s regular season. Now, at the two-week mark of the young campaign, the Panthers have played a whopping two games, with the last one coming seven days ago.
A COVID-19 outbreak among the Dallas Stars caused Florida’s opening series to be pushed further into the schedule, and then postponements of a few Carolina Hurricanes games meant the Panthers first road trip would also be delayed.
Since opening training camp on Jan. 3, head coach Joel Quenneville has held 16 days of practice, all at the BB&T Center. Entering Tuesday, the team had yet to skate together on any other patch of ice.
That finally changed following Florida’s morning skate at Nationwide Arena ahead of Tuesday night’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It feels good,” Quenneville said of getting into a new building. “We haven’t been in Columbus in a while. The locker room seems fresher, lighter, brighter, I don’t know if they’ve changed some of the things around here.
“I thought that the enthusiasm in the morning skate was very noticeable. I think they’re probably excited to be on the road and be together as a team, first time they’ve experienced that in some time.”
The last time the Panthers were on the road together was in August, when they participated in the Qualifying Round of the postseason inside the Toronto bubble.
A very different looking group boarded a plane Monday in Fort Lauderdale that was bound for Columbus, with seven players expected to be in the lineup Tuesday that were not on the team over the summer.
The experience may be similar, with health and safety protocols limiting what the players can do and where they can go, but the isolated nature will allow the team to continue bonding and getting acclimated to one another.
“It’s been good,” Panthers forward Frank Vatrano said. “Obviously a little different now, being on the road and being locked in your hotel not doing much, you get to bond with your teammates a little bit more.
“It’ll be a little bit different playing in a building with no fans in Columbus, but we’re excited.”
Vatrano explained that one way many of the players are choosing to pass the time is by playing video games. Despite being isolated in their hotel rooms, players can just hook up their consoles to the Wi-Fi and battle with and against each other while adhering to COVID protocols.
“Gaming is a big thing with our team right now, and obviously you have to put some time aside to talk to your family,” Vatrano said with a smirk.
In regard to which game is played, a popular choice among the Panthers is Call of Duty: Warzone.
Vatrano said the top three gamers on the team are MacKenzie Weegar, Sasha Barkov and, well, himself.
“I give most improved player to Jonathan Huberdeau, by far,” Vartano added. “Barky is top three…he’s number one, actually.”
For his part, Huberdeau expressed just as much eagerness and enthusiasm to hit the ice Tuesday as did Vatrano.
Florida’s leading scorer from a season ago is off to a hot start, with four points (1-3-4) in the Panthers two wins, while skating on a line with new teammates Alexander Wennberg and Patric Hornqvist.
“We feel excited,” said Huberdeau. “We’ve been watching hockey for over a week and it just felt like we were done, but we’re still in this.
“We just have to treat this like Opening Day and get back into game conditioning. I think it’s going to be fun. We’re all excited. We don’t want to practice anymore; we want to play some games and win some games.”
Barring any future postponements, the opportunity to play some games will be coming fast and furious for the Panthers.
Starting Tuesday in Columbus, the Cats will play four road games over the next six days.
The added workload and increasing pace is something that Quenneville feels his team will relish.
“I think that’s the part that everybody is more excited about than anything, that they were playing again,” Quenneville said. “So it’s a situation where wherever we’re going to be, obviously we should be excited about playing, but getting back after an absence and getting back to what we love to do is [something] we’re all looking forward to.”