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Bill Zito: Florida Panthers have Big ‘Opportunity’ in the Playoffs

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Paul Maurice, right, is introduced as the new head coach of the Florida Panthers by general manager Bill Zito on June 23 in Sunrise.  (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

CORAL SPRINGS — Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito said while he is happy his team made it to the playoffs, it does not mean this season is a success.

The Panthers came into this season knowing it probably would not be as good as last season’s 122-point team — but the playoffs were always expected.

“I don’t think that,’’ Zito told the South Florida media on Sunday morning. “I would love to say yes, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that was our expectation.

“We have good players. We have good coaches. Yes, there was a lot of obstacles we have had to overcome. And I’m thrilled that we have. But this is an opportunity. This is a beginning. And it’s exciting,’’

That said, Zito is pleased with the way the team fought though injuries and its roster turnover all while adjusting to a new coaching staff and a different style of play.

Florida ended up with the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 92 points.

As the eighth-seed, Florida will open against the favored Boston Bruins who set NHL records for wins (65) and points (135) in a single season.

It is the biggest point disparity for an opening-round playoff series since 1996 when the Detroit Red Wings (131 points) took on the Winnipeg Jets (78).

Florida will open in Boston on Monday night. Zito says he is cool with starting away from Sunrise.

The Panthers are, after all, 0-5 in their past five series which opened on home ice dating to 2012 against the Devils.

Florida lost Game 1 to both the Capitals and Lightning in Sunrise last season as well as Game 1 to Tampa Bay in 2021.

“John Tortorella used to say when we were in Columbus that he preferred to start on the road,’’ Zito said. “There less distractions. And I’ve sort of embraced that ideology. There’s a lot of merit to in my mind. Now, if we pitch two poor outings, I might revisit that. …

“There’s definitely a feeling of ‘why not us?’ We’re in and that’s all it takes. You watch every year. You know, they just don’t hand out the trophy to the to the top (regular season) team.”

Zito, in his third season as GM of the Panthers, has turned the roster upside down with only four players — captain Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Sergei Bobrovsky and Eetu Luostarinen — here when he left Columbus as the associate general manager to replace Dale Tallon.

In March, he spoke glowingly of the work done by new coach Paul Maurice and left his team intact at the trade deadline in the hope they would make a run at the postseason.

“We have to win a lot of them,” Zito said when the Panthers had 19 games remaining.

“No matter what I say, they are empty words. But I can tell you the truth and say I am confident they can do it. If you tell me intellectually, the odds are this — OK, they are. But people have overcome much bigger odds than what we are facing. One thing I do know, and correct me if you think I am wrong, but we do not quit.”

On Sunday morning, he spoke more about the team and where they stand — and, where he hopes they are going — moving forward.

Below is a portion of the interview Zito had on Sunday morning. It has been edited and shortened. The complete video of Zito’s press conference is embedded below.

What have you liked the most about the way this team has battled down the stretch?

It seems seems like we’ve been in the playoffs for a couple of months with regard to the urgency, the potential impact and getting it done or not. So for me, it’s been — I the guess the word resilience — is the guys’ ability to go from nine (points) out to consistently play every night. I guess the other word would be consistency, right? So to try to add consistency to the way you do things, not go up and down. That’s the most striking observation that I would have.

Was it kind of tough going through the ups-and-downs of the season?

It was frustrating, because you could see a lot of the losses were unnecessary. If you have this conversation with the other 31 GMs, they’re going to the same. Even (Boston’s) Donnie Sweeney would say ‘geez, we could have had 150 points!’ … It is a little bit of an excuse, but it is an explanation, it is less frustrating because of the injuries, because of the schedule, because of the effort. The players never quit. It’s not like they gave up, things just weren’t going our way.

What was your message to Paul Maurice through the season?

Obviously we were trying to play a different way and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that to some degree. But we have to continue to improve and we have to continue to refine our ability to do that. There were still still some mistakes and still some adaptation to the myriad of obstacles that get put in your way.

You expected the playoffs but this team added some gray hairs through the season, right?

The strange thing was during the season, you look at some of the evaluative statistics that smarter people that I will tell you are very, very accurate. ‘Look, our expected goals were right at the top!’ So knowing what could be — and getting that to sync with what’s happening, getting healthy, getting that favorable schedule — it all kind of ties together.

So I would call making the playoffs a relief and an opportunity.

Feel comfortable knowing your team now has some playoff experience? 

I think it’s much different. I can tell you that the energy around the group is a little different. There’s a higher level of confidence and a higher level of understanding of exactly how hard this is, how much work it’s going to be. How mercurial the experience can be — the highs and the lows and keeping it balanced. And it’s exciting. It’s really exciting.

Your thoughts on seeing what Alex Lyon has done?

Kudos to Alex. When we needed him, he stepped up. He got the job done. He excelled and really hasn’t changed. He is the same guy and has the same habits, the same approach. It’s another challenge now and I don’t think he’s going to treat it any differently. If you remember, I said to you, our third guy is going to be the American League champion from last year. It makes some sense. He’s a good goaltender.

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS, ROUND 1
BOSTON BRUINS (ATL1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (WC2)
  • GAME 1
  • When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Boston Garden
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM/WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
  • Season Series (Tied 2-2): @Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17); @Florida 5, Boston 2 (Nov. 23); @Boston 7, Florida 3 (Dec. 19); @Florida 4, Boston 3 OT (Jan. 28)
  • Last season: Boston won 2-1
  • All-time regular season series: Boston leads 60-38-6, 6 ties
  • Playoff History (Florida leads 1-0): Panthers 4-1, 1996 (first round)
  • First Round Schedule — Game 1: Monday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 2: at Boston, Wednesday, 7:30 (ESPN); Game 3: at Florida, Friday, 7:30 (TNT); Game 4: at Florida, Sunday, 3:30 (TNT); Game 5*: at Boston, Wednesday, April 26; Game 6*: at Florida, Friday, April 28; Game 7*: at Boston, Sunday, April 30.

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