With Andrew Brunette now leading team, streaking Panthers poised to continue hot start

Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette speak following a practice at the Ice Den in Coral Springs. (Florida Panthers)

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – The Florida Panthers were back in a familiar place Monday when they held a practice at the Ice Den in Coral Springs for the first time in a week.

The voices echoing through the rink, the drills and pace of practice, it all felt the same as it had all season.

Of course, it was not the same.

Leading the practice, for the first time as interim head coach, was Andrew Brunette.

He was appointed to his new position on Friday following the resignation of former coach Joel Quenneville.

From an observer’s vantage point, it was a well-run, seemingly normal practice.

The first drill that was drawn up on the whiteboard was done by assistant coach Derek MacKenzie, which is not uncommon by any stretch, and as soon as he was done explaining, Brunette loudly and boldly exclaimed, “Good job, Mac,” which led to about a dozen players playfully following suit.

It confirmed that the mood on the ice was exactly as it appeared to be – pleasant, playful, and serious, all at once.

In other words, business as usual.

The team moved from once ice surface to the other, another unchanged element of past practices this season.

Toward the end of the workout, the Panthers did a drill in which most of the players watched while standing across the blue line, with a handful of players and a goalie in the zone, fighting for the puck in a three-on-two situation.

It was extremely fast paced, with Brunette quickly throwing a puck back into the scrum anytime one went out of the zone, into the netting above the glass or past the goalie.

The players were into it, having fun and chirping at one another throughout.

It was a great way to end practice on a high note.

“I’m just trying to keep what we have going and keep the status quo,” Brunette said.

At the conclusion of the skate, Brunette gathered his players for a quiet chat in the middle of the rink. He spoke for about two minutes, and when he was done, every player and coach began tapping their sticks on the ice with excitement and enthusiasm.

You could feel how genuine the love was just by hearing the sounds echoing through the cold arena.

The stick taps weren’t just for the not-so-new-coach in his suddenly massive new role. It was for everyone in that rink. The players, the coaches, the trainers, the equipment staff.

This is a tight-knit group.

Ask any player and they’re happy to bend your ear about it.

It appears, at least in the short term, that even the biggest controversy the NHL has seen in years, one that has players across the landscape shaken up over what happened to one of their brothers, one that cost this team its head coach and leader, is not going to crack the foundation of what the organization has been building for the past several years.

“We’re a family in that room,” Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said following Monday’s practice. “It’s been a tough challenge for us the last week or so. It really showed us how close we are.”

It is obviously way too early to know what long-term effects, if any, the past week will have on the Panthers.

But this is a team that has been working toward something for a long time. Growing a culture that emphasizes hard work, focus, camaraderie, sacrifice, and trust.

Now that culture is being put to the test.

Florida is still a team that many consider to be among a select few that can compete for a Stanley Cup this season.

They have worked extremely hard to reach this level and are playing like it.

That much was clear on Friday and Saturday nights.

Florida wrapped up an exhausting stretch of seven games in 12 days with back-to-back road contests in Detroit and Boston. Both games would go to overtime because, of course.

Usually, you can make an excuse for a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and this team, in the midst of a mental and emotional roller coaster, would’ve been given every benefit of every doubt if they had laid an egg in Beantown.

That was hardly the case for the Panthers, who were battling a tough Bruins team in a building that has been a house of horrors for the franchise for the better part of this millennium.

Florida lost in a shootout in Boston, collecting three of a possible four points over the 24-hour span that took the team from Michigan to Massachusetts. Their record, though no longer perfect, still has the Cats at the top of the league standings at 8-0-1.

The effort put forth on the ice those nights showed that this team has come too far to let something, or anything, really, stand between them and their goals.

Following Brunette into battle and taking his word as gospel was not going to be an issue or require any transitional period.

The Panthers are past that. They’re still in win-now mode, and Brunette has been as much a part of reaching that status as anyone else involved.

“I think he’s been a great leader,” Weegar said of Brunette. “A guy that can really step into the room and, through this tough time, really step up. He’s been great the last couple of games for us.”

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.