WINNIPEG -- Perhaps all you need to know about the Panthers since Peter Horachek took the reins are the joyful sounds that echo down the hallway during their pregame warmup.
It was just a couple of months ago that the team could have been mistaken for a troupe of mimes while playing “two-touch” with a soccer ball before taking the ice.
“They did not say anything. They were a very quiet team,” the rookie head coach said.
But nowadays, they’re laughing, joking around and engaging in the kind of friendly trash talk that you’d expect from a group that has come back from the dead in the last seven weeks.
In fact, one member of the serving staff at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg told the coach during lunch on Saturday that his team is one of the chattier ones to come through town.
“They’re confident [now]. They like each other, they talk a lot, they chirp at each other in a fun way and that stems from believing where they are right now,” he said.
“I used to talk into video rooms when I took over and you could have heard a [pin drop]. Now when I walk in, it’s like, ‘holy cow.’ They’re just talking and talking. I’ll sometimes wait and let them talk it out because I think it’s good for them to have that kind of chatter.”
After a 3-9-4 start under former coach, Kevin Dineen — who is now at the helm of the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team —the Horacheck-led Panthers have gone 11-9-1 to climb within six points of the playoff line.
They took six out of a possible eight points on their just-completed four-game Canadian road trip, winning in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa before falling 5-2 to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night. The loss snapped a five-game winning streak.
The Panthers kick off a five-game home stand with cross-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning, on Monday night at the BB&T Center.
So, how did the 53-year-old, who spent 15 years in the minors and then another decade as an assistant or associate in The Show before getting his first head coaching gig in the NHL, exorcise the Panthers’ demons so quickly?
Well, he could have started by taking a page out of any minor hockey association coaching guide — accentuate the positive.
“I don’t really talk about what they did or what they didn’t do, I just talked about what we have to do and what we are going to do and the way we have to play. It’s important not to talk about the negative. The negativity was all over [the place]. They felt it with every move. You have to get by it and get into a position where you feel confident and you feel everybody trusts each other,” he said.
Cultivating that kind of environment requires a combination of words, actions and accountability to the guy next to you, he said.
Horachek singled out Bjugstad and fellow rookie Aleksander Barkov, as well as the likes of Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Brian Campbell, Scottie Upshall and Krys Barch, as players who have stepped up as leaders since becoming coach.
“It’s going to grow. I expect the leadership to come from more than one guy. We don’t have Ed Jovanovski in the line-up anymore. We don’t have Bill Lindsay in the line-up anymore. These things have to be shared,” he said.