DETROIT – Picking up seven of a possible eight points on a four game, six-day NHL road trip is an extremely impressive feat for any team, regardless of who or where they played.
That’s what the Florida Panthers just pulled off, following Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena in the Motor City.
It gave the Panthers a 5-0-1 record through the team’s first six games, which signifies the best six-game start to any new season in franchise history.
It’s been clear from the beginning of training camp that there was something different about this version of the Panthers.
General Manager Bill Zito, who was just hired this past September, had yet to move into his new office in Sunrise when he began giving the Florida lineup a good, and apparently much-needed overhaul.
Several popular regulars like Colton Sceviour, Mike Hoffman, Mark Pysyk, Mike Matheson, Evgenii Dadonov and Brian Boyle were either traded or not offered new contracts. The result was nearly half the players on the opening night roster making their Panthers debut.
The moves brought a fresh, new attitude to the locker room, on the bench and most importantly, on the ice.
It’s a difference that has been noticeable across the board, including from the guy overseeing it all.
“There’s a new vibe around here,” said Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville. “I think the attitude is fresh. A lot more enthusiasm, be it coming to practice, in the gym, in meetings, locker room, on the bench. Obviously getting off to a good start enhances that attitude, but nobody’s taking anything for granted.”
A fair share of the credit for the unexpected yet exhilarating start to the season goes to several of the Panthers newest players.
Whether it’s the additions made by Zito, like Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas or Anthony Duclair, or younger players coming into their own that were with the team prior to Zito’s arrival, such as Eetu Luostarinen or Aleksi Heponiemi, Florida is getting contributions from a bunch of guys playing their first games in a Panthers sweater.
“These guys have really brought some intensity to the game,” Quenneville said of the new players. “They’ve got some personality, they’re good in the locker room, they play the right way, they challenge each other in a positive way.”
The deep roster and strong dressing room have helped the Panthers power through a rough stretch of games that included several third period comebacks and four straight that were decided beyond sixty minutes.
“It’s showing good poise from our group,” said defenseman Keith Yandle. “Especially early in the season when you’ve got a lot of new players, finding ways to win these games like we have and being comfortable playing from behind, it’s been great for us.”
Indeed, Florida has looked calm, cool and collected while having to overcome third period deficits in three of their first four games.
It’s indicative of a quiet confidence among Quenneville’s players that is growing with every goal and every win.
“The biggest difference is when we’re down, no one is giving up,” goalie Chris Driedger said when asked about the difference between last season and the current one. “Everyone in the room just buckles down and we know that we’re going to come back and score goals. It’s been a great attitude. A lot of the new guys have a super positive influence in the room.”
Entering Monday’s play, the Panthers sit atop the Central Division with 11 points, a franchise-best 5-0-1 record through six games (Columbus also has 11 points, but through 10 games played).
For a team somewhat notorious for slow starts to the season, seeing Florida come flying out of the gate like this has to be refreshing to the players that have been with the team the longest.
“It’s huge,” said Yandle, who is playing in his fifth season with the Panthers. “Obviously getting points, especially in a shortened season, is big. Finding ways to win games, whether its overtime or shootouts, they are going to be much-needed, especially late in the season. Collect as many points as we can now, and we’ve got to keep riding this.”
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, now playing in his eighth season with Florida since being selected second overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, has seen just about everything during his career.
He’s been part of two playoff teams, an Atlantic Division title and the best season in Panthers history, which included a franchise-best 12-game winning streak.
He’s also been a part of some pretty bad Florida teams, including three that failed to finish the season above .500.
If anyone is going to notice a positive difference from past seasons, it’s Barkov, who is arguably Florida’s most talented player.
“There haven’t been too many of these kind of trips so far (in my career), but this season is a new season,” Barkov said after Sunday’s win in Detroit. “I don’t really look back anymore. It feels like a fresh start for me and for all of the guys in the room. We’re enjoying this process and we’re only going to get better.”
As for being satisfied with the best six-game start in Panthers history, the man they call Barky is far from taking a victory lap.
“You know, it feels good but at the same time it just feels like…this is so nice, we just have to keep going, just have to keep working hard.”