SUNRISE — When Paul Maurice took over the Florida Panthers, he came in to turn their ‘fun-n-gun’ offense into a hard-nosed team more suited to win in the rough and tumble world of the postseason.
It took a grueling training camp, uncharacteristic stretches of losing as well as numerous injuries to get there.
“The first five days of training camp were hard and they never broke. They didn’t quit, it was just hard,” Maurice said. “The next day they wake up and they are still telling jokes and laughing.”
After barely squeaking into the playoffs following all of the adversity they faced, the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
They are having the most fun they’ve had in their careers.
“You have to work hard and when you work hard, you have to have fun,” captain Sasha Barkov said. “It’s the only way you are going to enjoy playing hard.’’
Florida general manager Bill Zito opted to make a change at head coach — making the surprising move to swap out Jack Adams runner-up Andrew Brunette for the 25-year NHL veteran — because he knew his team needed to learn how to play to win.
The stretch style the Panthers played under Brunette and Joel Quenneville did well in the regular season, securing the franchise their first Presidents’ Trophy last season.
But things ended abruptly as they scored three goals in a four-game loss to the Lightning. It was the second consecutive postseason loss to Tampa Bay.
“It can be really good for you, except for the most part, the rush game starts to disappear in the playoffs, so you need another piece,” Maurice said.
He set out to add a heavy forecheck and a chip-and-chase style conducive to playoff hockey. It took a lot of adversity and some soul searching to get to where the Panthers are now.
Maurice made it a point to keep two rules through the hard times of the season: “Work your ass off,’’ he said, “and have fun.”
The veteran head coach has let his guard down and allowed the players see him have fun as well.
Maurice — like the players in his locker room — has thrown around chirps and jokes of his own around the players and media.
After Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, Maurice told the media that Barkov left the game because he had a prior engagement, a neighbor’s bar mitzvah.
The Panthers do not take themselves too seriously and it has allowed them to feel comfortable having fun.
”I think if there is a change I’ve learned over time is that it’s okay if the players see you having fun, too,” Maurice said.
“If you’re in a bad mood all the time and yelling all the time, you’re not having fun. When is it okay to have fun? So you work your ass off and have fun, but that’s not me. They went out and worked hard, I didn’t say much about it and they had fun. And that’s who they are.”
Eric Staal, who played under Maurice twice with the Carolina Hurricanes, has noticed his coach’s enjoyment of the game and has been receptive to it.
“I think he is enjoying it too and you can feel that as a player,” Staal said.
“This is a fun group of guys and there is a great energy every time you come into the rink. I think he can feel that too. He is genuinely enjoying it a lot and he is not as stressed as years past that I’ve been with him.
“I think he has learned as he has gotten older is that you really have to enjoy the day-to-day, the moments, the work and the togetherness because it goes so fast. And if you’re going to put in all of the time and work and you’re not going to enjoy those moments, what’s the point?”
The Panthers have been able to draw a fine line between having fun and working hard because of the way they overcame the countless stack of obstacles in their way.
Through that adversity — and the work ethic it took to overcome it — they made working hard a habit and the enjoyment and comfort has stemmed from that work ethic being there consistently.
“I think that comes organically a little bit,” Staal said
“When you become what we have at this point, you trust in each other’s ability knowing exactly what everybody is doing to do every time. You know the work ethic is going to be there, you know the compete is going to be there.
“If you genuinely know that between each and every guy, you know you can enjoy it. You can have fun, you can laugh because you know that work ethic is going to be there no matter what.”
That has been the MO of Florida’s locker room for the past few years now, long before Maurice opened training camp last August.
Barkov has been the quiet ring leader, slinging one-liners in the perfect moments, while players like Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins also ease the locker room tension.
“It’s okay to be relaxed and laugh because those men have earned the right to know that they’re going to come in and play as hard as they can,” Maurice said.
“There’s an unusual group of guys in there and they were like that before I got here and then we had some more really important personalities come in. It’s about the players here, it truly is. I’m just having fun because they allow it.
“If they hadn’t worked hard, it wouldn’t be that much fun.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
- When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
- TV: TNT
- 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
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Saturday at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 2: Monday June 5 at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 3: Thursday June 8 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 4: Saturday June 10 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Tuesday June 13 at Vegas, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Friday June 16 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Monday June 19 at Vegas, 8 (TNT). * – If Necessary
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- Postseason History: First meeting
- How They Got Here — Vegas: d. Winnipeg in 5, Edmonton in 6, Dallas in 6; Florida: d. Boston in 7, Toronto in 5, Carolina in 4.