CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Times they are a-changin'.
The calendar has just flipped from September to October, and hockey is on the minds of many.
The greatest pundits in North America who cover the sport, ones who, this time of year, are usually focused on superstars and popular Stanley Cup contenders, are paying attention to the league's southernmost franchise.
On the lips of hockey experts making their postseason predictions is an unfamiliar place for the Florida Panthers to find themselves.
Eighty-two unchecked games remain on the schedule, but there is an overwhelming consensus that Florida will be playing playoff hockey.
It's an understandable conclusion to draw, knowing the daily combination of talent and effort being applied in Pantherland.
"I think having higher expectations across the board is something that is part of the business, and meeting those challenges is going to be an everyday thing," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. "We think that getting off to a (good) start is going to be very important to what's going to happen later (in the season). We have one goal this year: We want to be a playoff team."
From the first shift of training camp, Quenneville's presence on the ice has been remarkable.
Fast-paced, spirited practices that last about an hour have been the norm.
Quenneville knows that it's a long season and wants to keep his players fresh, utilizing valuable off-ice preparation methods in exchange for longer practices.
He's also aware of Florida's location on the map and what that will mean as the year goes by.
"We feel that we're never going to go long (with our practice length)," Quenneville said. "We like to go short, hard and crisp. Over the course of the season, we know, being here in Florida, traveling is going to be something that, with practicing all the time, they might be better off in the gym or in the video room some days (than on the ice)."
There certainly haven't been any complaints from his players.
When trying to describe the mood in Florida's dressing room over the past few weeks, two words come to mind: happy and focused.
The Panthers aren't flying under anybody's radar this season. The team is full of confidence, at least as much as an extremely talented but unproven group with a Hall of Fame coach and an 0-0-0 record could have.
Thankfully, the time has arrived to stop visualizing goals and start accomplishing them.
"We've been talking a lot about (how) talk is pretty cheap, and up until now, all we've been able to do is talk," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said. "Come tomorrow, it's time to start putting our words into action."
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