Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie stood in the Florida locker room, wearing a red undershirt and blue shorts with a bag of gear at his feet.
The Panthers had just ended a disappointing season Sunday night with a 2-0 victory over the Washington Capitals, which had the best record in the National Hockey League for the second season in a row.
That was very little solace for MacKenzie and his teammates, who won a division title in 2015-16 but will watch the playoffs at home this year while Washington aims for its first Stanley Cup.
“It has been a difficult season,” said MacKenzie, who scored the first goal of the game. “We went through a lot of changes.”
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More changes could be on the way — quickly — as interim head coach Tom Rowe is not expected to be retained by president of hockey operations Dale Tallon.
“It is not a good feeling,” Rowe said of missing the playoffs. “It is a very disappointing season obviously. Sometimes you have to take a step backward. I know our fans are very unhappy and deservedly so. We will be back next year. We have a lot of great pieces.”
“Everyone expected us to be in the playoffs,” Rowe added. “I will meet with Dale tomorrow and go over a couple of things.”
After six losses in a row, the Panthers ended the season with two shutout wins as James Reimer took over in goal.
“A real disappointing season,” Reimer said. “We battled hard all year. We are looking forward to next year. As disappointing as this season was, there are a lot of positive things to look forward for next year.”
Florida was 35-36-11 with 81 points this season after registering 103 points last season and winning a division title.
In a case of what might have been, the Panthers gave a strong effort Sunday against a first-place team.
The Capitals had a power-play opportunity late in the second period but couldn’t take advantage of it.
The Panthers almost scored short-handed but Jonathan Huberdeau couldn’t convert from the right side following a pass from Vincent Trocheck on a two-and-one break.
Seconds later MacKenzie of the Panthers did score to make it 1-0 with 4:13 left in the second period.
“With all we have been through we will take it,” MacKenzie said of the victory. “I have said all along this is a great group of guys.”
The short-handed goal, off an assist from Colton Sceviour, came after teammate Reilly Smith was called for goaltender interference with 5:27 left in the second period.
The Panthers made it 2-0 with 10:13 left in the third period on a goal by Denis Malgin, with assists from Smith and Nick Bjugstad.
Reimer made a nice save with 12:32 left in the first period to keep the game scoreless.
About a minute later Trocheck, the only All-Star for the Panthers this season, had his shot bounce off the pipe. Washington starting goalie Braden Holtby, in preparation for the playoffs, was pulled after two periods in favor of Caps reserve goalie Philip Grubauer.
Washington had already clinched the President Trophy’s for the most points in the league and had won the previous two games this season against the Panthers, both by the score of 4-2.
“They still have a powerful team,” Rowe said of the Capitals, who used two minor league callups. “I love the way the young guys played. Malgin seems to get better every single game.”
For another night silver linings will have to bring comfort for Panthers fans following a frustrating season.
NOTES: Florida’s Jaromir Jagr, who played for the Capitals from 2001-04, had four shots on goal while playing 14:44. He played in all 82 games this season with 16 goals after playing in 79 last season. “He was tremendous in our locker room,” said Rowe, who would not confirm if Jagr will return next season … The Panthers had lost 11 of their last 12 games in Washington … Florida ended the season 16-17-8 on the road and 19-19-3 at home … The Panthers were outshot 21-14 in the first two periods and 38-21 overall.