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Florida Panthers emerge from long break ready to get back to business

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The Florida Panthers are ready to come out of their long All-Star break and pick up where they left off — and that includes lots of scoring from the likes of Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

Had the Florida Panthers not come out gangbusters from their extended Christmas break, perhaps there may be some concern about this team having such a long layoff.

After all, back in 2020, the Panthers went into a 10-day break riding a six-game winning streak and holding the third spot in the division.

Florida struggled so badly over the next five weeks the team ended up making a number of franchise-altering changes by the time the season finally ended in July.

Although it was not that long ago, it certainly feels that way.

Aaron Ekblad says he does not 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.”

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Here’s a reminder: The Panthers came out of the break with a thud, losing 4-0 in Montreal. Florida continued to struggle, the knee injury to Sasha Barkov sustained in that loss to the Canadiens perhaps playing a big part.

Florida ended up losing 13 of 18 coming out of the break before Roberto Luongo’s emotional pregame jersey retirement speech led to a 4-1 win against the Canadiens. The Panthers ended up winning 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.

Out of desperation, the team also traded center Vincent Trocheck to Carolina and winger Denis Malgin to Toronto.

Florida ended up getting Mason Marchment, Eetu Luostarinen and Chase Priskie out of those two deals, so, that’s something.

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 GM Dale Tallon and hired Bill Zito.

Of the 29 players who suited up for the Panthers during that 2019-20 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 compete. 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 December and the Panthers erased those past long-layoff blues.

The Panthers went into what was an extended Christmas break due to a Covid outbreak not only within their team but the entire league. Florida, finally healthy coming out of that hiatus, opened with a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers then thrashed the shorthanded Lightning 9-3.

Florida ended up going 14-3-1 in its 18 games before the break as it set a franchise record for most wins in a month (14) and led the league in both standing points and goals scored.

But the team has been off since losing to the Rangers 5-2 in New York on Feb. 1.

Can they pick up where they left off?

With a bunch of injured players (Patric Hornqvist, Noel Acciari, Olli Juolevi and Maxim Mamin) looking like they can return to the lineup, the Panthers are as healthy as they have been since the start of training camp.

”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 traveling to Minnesota, the Panthers have a pretty easy road ahead with a very accommodating schedule.

Florida is all but assured a spot in the playoffs but with three games remaining against Atlantic challenger Toronto and two more against Tampa Bay and Boston, these final 35 games is basically about working on themselves as well as getting the best postseason seed available.

“Getting better every day is the key,” 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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