SUNRISE, Fla. – The wounds are still fresh.
Two days is not enough time to process an entire hockey season, especially one that ended so abruptly and unexpectedly, regardless of how much positivity and success it included.
Make no mistake, the 2020-21 Florida Panthers season is a year that will long be considered one of, if not the best in franchise history.
So while the sting of a first round exit remains in place, the big picture still has a nice silver lining attached to it.
“I thought we had a heck of a year in a lot of ways,” Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. “Big improvement in our overall team game. A playoff-ready team that knows how to win.”
You can always count on Coach Q to find the positive in any situation, and that skill was put to good use on Friday.
Quenneville and his staff held the traditional exit meetings with their players at the BB&T Center, less than 48 hours after Florida was dispatched in a six-game slugfest against their new cross-state rivals from Tampa Bay.
I say “new” because before this season, and really before the past few weeks, the only reason it felt like a rivalry between the Panthers and Lightning was due to the pure distain that the two fanbases hold for one another.
The on-ice element was never really there, but that changed in a big way this season.
Both teams were among the best in the NHL all year. Tampa, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, were expected to be in that mix. The Panthers were not.
“That’s the thing that hurts the most about losing, is we did have a really good team,” rookie Mason Marchment said. “I feel like we could’ve done some damage in the playoffs. Kudos to Tampa, they played a good series. They’ve won before and they’re a pretty good team. At the same time, I feel like we easily could’ve come out on top a couple of those games. That’s probably the only thing that hurts.”
Gotta love hockey in Covid times, eh?
The Panthers go out and have an amazing season, finish with the fourth-best record in the entire NHL, and their reward is facing a team in the first round that finished just four points behind them that also happens to be the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Well, at least the series was entertaining.
“I asked a lot of people around, and they were saying it was one of the best series they’ve seen,” said Jonathan Huberdeau. “It’s cool to see we can create a rivalry with Tampa. Obviously, they’re a really good team. I think we had our chances. The series could’ve gone either way. Every shift was intense, physical. That’s playoff hockey, that’s what it is, that’s why it’s so fun. That’s what you play for.”
Indeed, the playoffs, the intensity, the intrigue that comes with every game, every goal and every shift being magnified exponentially…that’s what it’s all about.
For years, when it came to the Panthers franchise, just making the playoffs would’ve been more than enough.
This is a team that, after all, went over a decade without even qualifying for the postseason. A franchise that went almost 15 years to the day (from April 17, 1997 to April 15, 2012) without winning a single playoff game.
Not a series. A game.
So yeah, getting a small taste of playoff success, when that’s all you’ve worked toward, successfully, for an entire season, is only going to add to that ultimate championship hunger.
“It was a great experience, I think for everyone,” Panthers rookie Owen Tippett said. “It wasn’t the ending we wanted, but it was good to get that little taste. Coming back next year, it’s definitely going to be in our heads.”
Going from a team just happy to be playing past the regular season to one that won’t be satisfied without being on the smiling end of a center ice handshake line is not something that just happens overnight.
But guess what, Panthers fans…it’s time to expect more.
“Expectations are healthy,” said Quenneville. “Creating a higher standard of expected play is where we’re at. I think that started to be in place going into the playoffs. That standard, starting from square one, that’s where we’re going to take off from (next season). It’s easier said than done, but that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Several Panthers players, along with Quenneville, spoke to the media on Friday for the last time before heading their separate ways for the first summertime offseason since 2019.
Obviously while some things were universally discussed, many topics were wide-ranging and specific to each player. That being the case, here’s a few of the more interesting quotes that came from Friday’s exit interviews:
JOEL QUENNEVILLE DROPS PLAYOFF WISDOM
“You need a lot of things to go right to win a round, and trying to do that four times is the biggest challenge that you face in your hockey career. I thought we made significant inroads to learning that lesson.”
PANTHERS FANS HELP FEED JONATHAN HUBERDEAU’S PLAYOFF HUNGER
“The atmosphere in this building was insane in the playoffs and it was great to see. (Panthers fans) haven’t been lucky with the winning, and we haven’t won a round since I’ve been here, but it was good to see the support. I think we need to bring that for the fans, but for us too. Me, Barky, all the guys, we’ve been here a long time and we’re sick of losing. This year just made it look like, obviously we didn’t win, but it made it just seem like…it’s fun to win, and this year was a lot of fun. That’s what we want to feel every year.”
RYAN LOMBERG ALSO HUNGRY FOR MORE
“As a group, there were a lot of highs. We’re looking forward to getting more of them and riding even higher waves. Although there were some high spots, that just fuels the fire and gives us some motivation moving ahead.”
SASHA BARKOV, TOO…
“I think we took a huge step forward, but we’re not satisfied. We’re not done. This is just the beginning. I’m really looking forward to next season, but first, get some rest.”
RADKO GUDAS’ ROCKING A FU MANCHU
“I had to trim (my beard) a little bit, but I couldn’t get rid of the whole thing, so I just kept the stache for a couple days. I had a couple good laughs with the guys. Maybe they get to see my chin for a little bit after a few months.”
MASON MARCHMENT REWARDS JOEL QUENNEVILLE’S FAITH
“Q gave me a really good opportunity after I came in, to play with those high-level players. I just tried to play my game, that kind of helped their game. This year was definitely huge for me personally. It’s been a long journey to get to the NHL and I’m just happy that I’m here.
“I love it here. It’s a good team, good organization, all the staff and everyone is so nice and welcoming. I’m just happy to be coming back here.”
SASHA BARKOV TALKS CONTRACT EXTENSION
“I haven’t really thought about it yet. Obviously, we’ll talk about it with my people and the organization, too, and we’ll come up with something. All I can say is that I love it here right now and I enjoyed this year the most in my entire life. I want to keep doing that every year. I’m really happy.”
COACH Q ON THE CHANGING CULTURE
“I think we’re excited, talking to all the players today, and our staff, we haven’t really summed the whole season up yet, but I think we made significant progress in our consistency of our team, playing at a high level, a predictable level. Expectations changed internally, I think now going into the start of a season, all of a sudden, we have different goals. The goal will always be to make the playoffs, and off of that comes the next plan.”
SPENCER KNIGHT EVEN REFLECTS LIKE A SEASONED VETERAN
“It’s been a crazy past couple of months. It kind of flew by. Being able to get in a couple games, and obviously playing in a couple playoff games, it’s really helpful for me going into the offseason, being able to recognize that I’ve started my professional career. It gives me a sense of what it’s like around here, and what it’s like to be a pro.”
FAN FAVORITE RYAN LOMBERG
“I definitely felt the love, I’m so appreciative of it. I’m thrilled and couldn’t be more excited to come back next year and give the fans a show.”
JUST THE TIPPETT OF THE ICEBERG?
“Early on in the year, it was just getting comfortable, but I think as I got comfortable and more confident, my game started to take off. I know I have another level, so we’ll go from there.”
JONATHAN HUBERDEAU STILL DISCOVERING HIS POTENTIAL
“Consistency has always been a big thing for me. This year was good. I think I proved myself, what I can do, and what kind of player I can be. I showed I can be physical as well; I didn’t really know myself that I could do that. I know I have a lot of things to look forward to. This summer is a big summer to get better. You get older, you have to work even harder. Coming back next year, I want to be the same player, and even better.”
HEY COACH, WHAT ABOUT BOB?
“It’ll get talked about, with Bob’s situation here. He handled it like a pro. I commend him, that in a tough situation, he was a good teammate, and he knew he was getting himself ready to come in as soon as possible, and taking with him going forward as well. It was a situation where he wants to play, but I think he has an understanding of the situation we have now. So, we’ll sort the goalie stuff out over the course of the summer. We haven’t talked about the players yet with Bill and the plans, but certainly it was different, having three goalies around that can all play and were all successful. That was unique in its own way, and I think the decision-making was something that you had to trust your gut, and experience as well.”