SUNRISE, Fla. – With only 12 games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Florida Panthers find themselves in uncharted waters.
Between the franchise-best win and point totals, the utterly stacked roster, the skilled players added at the Trade Deadline, the growing crowds of energized fans at FLA Live Arena and the expectations of not only being a Stanley Cup contender, but a favorite to win it all, the Panthers have entered into a world never before seen by the franchise or its loyal supporters.
Interim Head Coach Andrew Brunette was originally hired by Florida as an assistant three seasons ago, which followed a long playing career and several years spent as both a coach and executive. He’s been around the NHL for a while and he’s more than familiar with the Panthers and their history as a victory-challenged franchise.
“I think you for sure have to enjoy the moment,” Brunette said following Thursday’s practice.
Having been around the NHL about as long as the Panthers have existed, Brunette understands how important the team’s turnaround has been, and how special of a season they are having. He also knows what this kind of sustainable success means to both the franchise and the region of South Florida it calls home.
It’s not just the on-ice achievements that makes the Panthers such an extraordinary group, but also how they have grown into an extremely close band of brothers off the ice, helping each other be the best versions of themselves and holding one another accountable through the ups and downs of a long NHL season.
“Our group has been exceptional all year,” Brunette said. “They are fun group to coach, they’re a fun group to be around, and they have a genuine, authentic love for each other, as you can see night in and night out.”
Florida has entered the final stretch of the regular season with a couple non-traditional goals in sight.
Rather than striving simply to qualify for the playoffs, the Panthers are looking to claim the Atlantic Division crown and lock up the top seed in the Eastern Conference, which would secure them home ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Entering play Thursday, the Panthers hold an 8-point edge on second-place Toronto in the Atlantic and a 4-point lead on Carolina for first in the East.
“We put ourselves in a good spot with a couple weeks remaining,” said Florida winger Sam Reinhart. “This is what you aim for at the start of the year, to have these opportunities, so we’re not going to take that for granted. We’re going to embrace the challenge and the opportunity ahead.”
Florida was the first team in the NHL to clinch its spot in the postseason, punching its ticket last weekend in Buffalo.
That gives the Panthers less than a month to address the team’s flaws and tighten the screws as best they can before the real fun begins.
And while the majority of the players on Florida’s roster have some level of Stanley Cup experience, for Reinhart and rookie Anton Lundell, Game One of the opening round will be the first time they experience NHL postseason hockey.
Both were asked about it on Thursday.
“It’s huge, it’s something you always dream about when you’re a young player,” said Lundell. “It always seemed so far, and now we’re here. We’re going to playoffs.”
Added Reinhart: “It’s something you want to be a part of. That’s why you play hockey, to be playing at the end of the year. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Sergei Bobrovsky has been the unquestioned starter in the Panthers goal crease over the past three seasons.
The two-time Vezina Trophy winner signed a massive $70 million contract with the Cats in 2019 and all things considered, has been treated as the main man in goal ever since.
It’s debatable whether he’s always been the best goalie on the roster during that time, though.
There were stretches last season where Bobrovsky was being outplayed by former Panthers goalie Chris Driedger, and in recent weeks it appeared that rookie Spencer Knight was the more steady, reliable member of the tandem.
With the postseason right around the corner, it begs the question of whether there is any consideration behind the scenes that perhaps Bobrovsky wouldn’t be the starter come Round One.
On Wednesday, Brunette was asked about the importance of evaluating his goaltenders ahead of the playoffs, and he was quick to anoint Bobrovsky as the main man while still making sure to mention his more-than-capable backup.
“Bob’s our goalie, until otherwise notified,” Brunette said. “We have a really good luxury with Knighter. He’s capable, he’s played a playoff game, so we feel good about our goaltending.”
Bobrovsky was more than solid during the month of March, earning a perfect 7-0-0 record, a goals against average of 2.13 and a save percentage of .924.
He capped it off with perhaps his best start since joining the Panthers, a 37-shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks in which he came up with several sparkling saves.
Unfortunately, Bob has followed up that game with two of his worst, getting pulled early in each of them after allowing a combined 10 goals on 39 shots.
It’s been a strange year for Bobrovsky, as he’s racked up the wins (he’s 33-6-3) and has relatively good stats (a 2.71 GAA and .911 save percentage), but for those of us watching every game, the leaky, soft, frustrating goals have remained an issue.
The Panthers having the best offense in the NHL has masked some of those goaltending missteps, but things traditionally tighten up once the playoffs arrive, and goals could become more difficult for the Cats to come by.
None of that has swayed the opinion of Florida’s coaching staff, as Brunette made clear on Thursday that he sees the goals as more of a team issue than a problem in the crease.
“Bob’s been exceptional all year,” Brunette said. “We weren’t exceptional the last couple games in front of him. We have to tighten our own game up. It doesn’t matter who’s in net if we play like we played the other night (against Toronto) and in the Jersey game.”
Brunette also provided another positive update on the status of injured Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
The 26-year-old star rearguard hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury against the Anaheim Ducks back on March 18.
Ekblad was placed on LTIR and is not expected back until early May, after the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Last week Brunette said Ekblad was progressing nicely and moving around “pretty good” while calling him a “quick healer.”
On Thursday, Brunette said Ekblad had begun skating lightly and was still trending toward a return sometime after the start of the playoffs.
“He looks good,” Brunette said. “I think he’s on schedule, if there aren’t any hiccups.”