SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers took the ice for their first training camp under Paul Maurice in September, they knew things were about to be very different.
Maurice, who had been a head coach in the NHL for much of the past 25 years, came in set on playing a style of hockey built for the playoffs.
Gone were the days of the Panthers winning games 7-6 with a fast, flashy style of play.
It was a style of play which stalled out against Tampa Bay in the postseason two consecutive years when the back-to-back champion Lightning slowed the Panthers down in the neutral zone and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stole the show.
It took a while — a grueling five-day training camp, mid-season losing skids marred by bizarre amounts of injury and illness — but the players eventually bought in.
And now they are one win away from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1996.
They’re also having fun with it.
“I have a great sense of pride being associated with this team. The players run this room now,” Maurice said. “Yeah, the coaches do some things but this is the players’ time of the year. They are not looking to the bench for answers in this game. They know what the answers are and they are applying themselves.
”But I do enjoy being a part of it because they are fun bunch of guys and they grind hard.”
The Panthers have embraced playing under pressure since the calendar flipped to 2023.
Because they had to.
Florida had the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference when they entered a grueling stretch featuring road games in eight of 10 games on Jan. 5.
Despite losing both of their goalies and having a rotating cast of skaters throughout that stretch, they ended up surviving to the tune of a 7-4-2 record to get to the All-Star break.
“We were forced into that game,” Maurice said. “The only way we were surviving that is if the grind becomes who you are.”
The pressure never relented from there — not with the amount of ground they had to make up in order to make the playoffs — but they did not seem to care.
Every game was a must-win at that point but they did not let it effect the way they approached things.
Players still joked around in the locker room throughout the season and blasted music from the Lion King soundtrack after every win during an improbable run from Alex Lyon to finish it off.
Smiles can be seen on just about every player’s face no matter how big the moment is.
The style of hockey it takes to win in those situations has become so second-nature to the Panthers to the point they are simply basking in the moment.
“Why play if you can’t have fun?” Matthew Tkachuk said.
”We are enjoying each and every minute of it. We are enjoying the banter in the locker room before overtime and the pre-game skate. We are enjoying just being able to be together and continue to be a month and change after some teams have been out.”
Through all of the early adversity they have went through, the Panthers have found the right balance to go into a game both upbeat yet prepared.
“I think we are very loose but focused in the sense where we are preparing right,” Tkachuk said.
”We are trying to execute the best we can. There is no panic in our game and there are nerves, good nerves, but not any nerves that will affect you negatively. It’s just so fun to come to the rink each and every day and the games are amazing.
”They are really intense, tight games and I think that’s what makes it more fun.”
Florida’s approach to the game has shown every time they have had to approach one of those high-pressure moments during the postseason.
Their historic run started when they came back from down 3-1 to the greatest regular season team in the first round.
They also played in six overtime games and won every single one of them.
No matter the moment, their mindset was the same: Go out there, have fun, and take it one game at a time.
And they do not plan on changing it now that they have taken a 3-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.
“It’s just another hockey game,” Sam Bennett said of Wednesday night’s potentially series-clinching Game 4.
”That is the only way we can focus on it. I’m sure they are going to come out and play desperate. The toughest one to win is the fourth one but we’re just going to go out there and play another hockey game.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1) AT PANTHERS (WC2)
GAME 4 (Panthers Lead 3-0)
- When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Florida 3, @Carolina 2; Game 2: Florida 2, @Carolina 1 (OT); Game 3: @Florida 1, Carolina 0;Game 4: Wednesday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Friday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Sunday, May 28 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Tuesday, May 30 at Carolina, 8 (TNT). *If Necessary
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): @Florida 3, Carolina 0 (Nov.9);@Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, @Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.