Way back when (at the start of March), the Florida Panthers were in a bad way.
The same team which had gone into their 10-day break around All-Star Weekend with a six-game winning streak was falling fast.
The Panthers opened up following the break with a 4-0 loss in Montreal.
After losing 3-0 at home to Calgary on March 1, Florida had won just five of 17 games and had not won a home game since January 16.
The team took Monday off following the loss to the Flames and had a morning practice scheduled for March 3. That morning, I drove to the IceDen for practice.
Got there a little early but nothing was going on. Waited a little longer. Then, a bit more.
For a good hour, the team was in its locker room talking things out. What had gone wrong? How could it be fixed?
This was not the first team meeting the Florida Panthers held in trying to figure how to get on track.
The difference this time was it actually worked.
“I think the way we all bought into the system and played for one another showed what we can do,” Noel Acciari told me a few weeks ago.
“We played Boston, Montreal and St. Louis and only gave up four goals. That was playoff hockey for us at that point. We were doing all the little things in the defensive zone you need to do to help in a team game.
“It was our best hockey of the season I think. We all bought in at that meeting. We knew we were running out of time. It wasn’t November or December any more. It was March and we only had a certain amount of games left.”
Coach Joel Quenneville was apparently in the locker room for just a few moments and then he let his players take over. Some were louder than others.
If the Florida Panthers were to salvage things, they needed to start right then and there.
“I think accentuating the importance of where we’re at and the urgency that is necessary is what we’re looking at,” Quenneville said after that day’s spirited practice.
“We lost a lot of good positioning that we had, it has eroded here and we need to recapture the feeling of a win. … We have to be tough to play against, be strong on the puck and get to the net. Not being too friendly is what we’re talking about.”
Said Frank Vatrano: “You can talk all you want, say what you want but your play has to speak for itself. Guys in here are tough on ourselves and we have the right guys in this room. We have the skill here, the heart to make it there. Getting there is the biggest thing. But we won’t talk our way into it. We have to do it on the ice.”
At the time, the Panthers had 16 games left. They were now five points out of the playoffs as any savings stashed away during their six-game winning streak had been spent.
#FlaPanthers was scheduled to start at 11, so, goalies and some players would have been out here around 10:45. Team still in the room. Having a heart-to-heart?
— George Richards (@GeorgeRichards) March 3, 2020
Florida’s next game out was against Atlantic-leading Boston at BB&T Center.
With Chris Driedger back in net after missing time with a groin injury and a quick trip to Springfield for a rehab assignment, the Panthers looked like a completely different team.
Defensively, the Panthers were bringing it. Rebounds left by Driedger were quickly swept away, sticks were all over the ice interrupting passing lanes.
The Panthers, who at times looked like playing defensive hockey was a suggestion, were all-in.
Florida lost 2-1 in overtime that night, but there was at least a touch of satisfaction to the loss.
This, players noted, was how they had to play to win down the stretch.
“It’s funny because, the team earlier in the year was just all offense — scoring, scoring, scoring,’’ Driedger told me a few weeks into the season stoppage.
“And the defense was, slipping a little bit especially compared to what it was at the end of the year there. We sort of switched modes and became a defensive-minded team.”
Said Sasha Barkov following the loss: “We’re pissed off right now because we played good enough to win this one. We just couldn’t score and we had enough chances to do it. We have to play like that until the end of the season. We just set the standard for how we have to play. Anything less is unacceptable.”
.@Barkovsasha95 knocks down Bruin, kills penalty without a stick! 👀#NHL Scoreboard: #FlaPanthers 1 🆚 #NHLBruins 1@FlaPanthers 🏒 is LIVE on FOX Sports Florida 📺 & FOX Sports Go.📱▶️ https://t.co/AdYuNlNDek pic.twitter.com/jpAoWbw24g
— FOX Sports Florida & Sun (@FOXSportsFL) March 6, 2020
Was a it a one-time thing?
Well, the next game out, Florida beat Montreal to snap a franchise record eight-game home winless streak.
The Florida Panthers put pressure on the Canadiens from one end of the ice to the other and won 4-1 on Roberto Luongo’s big night.
Two nights later, on March 9, the Panthers went to St. Louis and put on a defensive clinic being credited with 11 hits, 13 takeaways and 23 blocked shots in a 2-1 win.
“Those last few games, with all the blocked shots, was pretty fun to watch,’’ Driedger said.
“When guys are doing that in front of you, it shows to the goalie that they have your back … We weren’t scoring a ton of goals in those games, but we weren’t giving up many either. It was fun hockey those last few games.”
The Panthers were feeling pretty good about themselves again.
And then the season was put on hold.
Florida was three points out of a playoff spot with 13 games left. They had a game in-hand against the Maple Leafs as well as a scheduled game in Toronto. The playoffs looked within reach.
“If the season kept going and we kept playing like that, we would have made the playoffs,” Acciari said. “We would have been a tough team to beat.”
Now, many months later, the Florida Panthers should get another shot. They’re part of the NHL’s Return to Play with a playoff qualifying best-of-5 series on tap against the Islanders.
They know how they have to play. Coming out of that meeting on March 3 showed the Panthers can back up their talk.
Florida will need to bring that same intensity when play resumes in the next few weeks.
“To be the team we know we can be, we have to pull it together and all buy in,’’ Acciari said. “I think at earlier times this season we all said ‘We want to do this, want to do that,’ but there were 40 games left. We thought we would be OK and just focused on our goal-scoring ability rather than our defensive ability.
“We just thought we would score five goals a night every night. That’s not the way it goes in the playoffs, in tight games. We are going to have to win games 3-2, 2-1 … play the full 60 minutes. I think we finally figured that out.”