Florida Panthers are back & better after a long break

Florida Panthers — Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Back in 2020, the Panthers went into a 10-day break riding a six-game winning streak and holding third place in the division.

Florida struggled over the next five weeks and the team made several franchise-altering changes by the time it finally ended in July.

Although these events were not that long ago, it certainly feels that way. Aaron Ekblad stated that he doesn’t even recall his team’s struggles from two years ago.

”Different team, for sure. I don’t remember that’’ he said last week. “I guess I put that away.”

Here’s a recap: The Florida Panthers came out of the break with a loss, falling short 4-0 in Montreal. Florida continued to struggle, which can be partially attributed to Sasha Barkov’s knee injury.

Florida ended up losing 13 of 18 coming out of the break before Roberto Luongo’s emotional pregame jersey retirement speech led them to a 4-1 win against the Canadiens. The Panthers were able to score victories in their final two games before covid shut down the season.

In that 5-10-3 streak was a franchise-record eight-game home winless streak.

The team then traded center Vincent Trocheck to Carolina and winger Denis Malgin to Toronto out of desperation. 

Florida ended up gaining Eetu Luostarinen, Mason Marchment, and Chase Priskie out of those two deals.

When the season ended in the Toronto postseason bubble with a listless four-game series loss to the Islanders, the Panthers moved on from longtime general manager Dale Tallon and hired Bill Zito.

Of the 29 players who played for the Florida Panthers during the 2019-2020 season, only seven remain.

”This is a different group,’’ said Andrew Brunette, who was an assistant coach on that team two seasons ago. “Talk to any coach or manager in the league and we’re all really scared at this time of the year because you don’t know what we’re going to get. But we know we are going to get complete. It may not be perfect but we are going to work. That’s all you can ask for. We’ll figure the rest out as we go along. I’m not worried. This is a very different group.”

Fast forward to this past December and the Panthers went into an extended Christmas break due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the entire NHL league. After finally coming out of their hiatus, the Panthers opened with a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers and then beat out the Tampa Bay Lightning 9-3. 

Florida ended up going 14-3-1 in its 18 games and set a franchise record for most wins in a month (14), leading the league in both goals scored and standing points. The team has been off since losing to the Rangers 5-2 in New York on Feb. 1.

So can the Panthers pick up where they left off?

With several injured players looking like they can return to the lineup, the Florida Panthers are as healthy as ever.

”I feel good about our team being fresh,’’ Ekblad said. “All season long, you saw guys go down with an injury or some sort of rest and we have always come back better. Every player. We have come out of breaks strong and I think that points to our practices. We do a good job of balancing.”

Although they open Wednesday against the Hurricanes before their trek to Minnesota, the Panthers have an easy and accommodating schedule ahead,

“Getting better every day is the key,” player Patric Hornqvist said. “We cannot think we’re in a good spot because we are up there in the standings. We have teams chasing us, so we can’t feel good about ourselves. We have to always come to the rink and try to get better by doing the right things over and over. Everything is going to be tighter, games are going to be harder every single night. We can’t get frustrated if we don’t score three, four, or five goals a game. At the end of the day, we need victories and that’s what we are all here for.”

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