The Panthers head into Ottawa a much different team than they were the last time they played the Senators.
On Florida's previous visit to the Canadian capital, the Panthers were a broken bunch. Mired in a seven-game losing streak, Florida fired coach Kevin Dineen a few hours before the team was to practice in Ottawa.
In the weeks since, the Panthers have bounced back to life under new coach Peter Horachek.
Florida came into Wednesday six points back of Toronto for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, fueled by a four-game winning streak. The Panthers also have won six of their past seven.
Times have most definitely changed.
“We’re back in the hunt. We’re playing well and we’re winning,’’ general manager Dale Tallon said.
“We’re not satisfied, but we’re much better off than we were. Players seem to be buying in, and that’s important. I’m not going to dwell on the past. I think we have a different voice, that’s all. Sometimes you need that when you’re in a slump.’’
On the morning of Nov. 8, not long after the team lost in Boston, Dineen was told of the coaching change at the team hotel.
Horachek already had been hired for the job and flew to New York from Vancouver as the Panthers were losing to the Bruins. While Dineen was meeting with Tallon, Horachek was en route to Ottawa.
Horachek's first day included meetings and a short practice. The following day, Florida gave up two goals in Horachek's first two-plus minutes as an NHL head coach.
The Panthers played better as the game wore on but still lost Horachek's debut 3-2. Florida lost the following day in New York as well but snapped its nine-game losing streak a few days later at home against Anaheim.
“It was kind of a whirlwind, didn’t have any time to prepare,’’ said Horachek, who is 10-8-1 since taking over for Dineen.
“In this situation, our guys are in a better place, are believers now. They’re playing a certain way, are more comfortable in what we’re doing.’’
Tallon said there hasn’t been any formal discussion of Florida keeping Horachek long-term. Horachek, who was coaching the Panthers’ AHL team in San Antonio, was hired on an interim basis.
“You’re putting the cart before the horse here,’’ Tallon said. “It’s a process. I don’t see why we would rush into anything. Things are going well. Let us let things happen.’’
Said Horachek: “All I can control is what I do. I worry about the things I have control over. Down deep do you want things to progress, have a longer future? Yes.’’
The Panthers are obviously playing better over the course of the past month than they did at the start of the season. Confidence in each other as well as buying into Horachek's style of play — moving the puck, being aggressive up the ice — seems to be agreeable to this team.
“It took a while, but look at what Pete has done, and I think it has been fantastic,’’ Brian Campbell said. “You almost have to give him those first two games back. Things changed, and everyone was given a good, clean slate. Guys were given opportunities, and we’ve bought in.’’
Winger Jonathan Huberdeau participated in Wednesday’s full workout at the Maple Leafs’ training facility in suburban Toronto. Huberdeau has missed the past two games after being struck in the right foot by a puck Friday.
After practice, Huberdeau was back in his black walking boot.
“He looked good, looked like he didn’t have any pain,’’ Horachek said.• Winger Jesse Winchester is expected to miss at least three weeks with an injured hand. Winchester was injured blocking a shot Sunday in Montreal.
• Goalie Tim Thomas (groin) worked out for the second day in a row, but Horachek said they will not rush him back into the lineup. Thomas is eligible to come off the injured list for Friday's game in Winnipeg.
“You don’t want it to be reoccurring, so we’re taking it slow, going in bits and pieces,’’ Horachek said. “He just needs a little more time. He’s eligible to play Friday, and we’ll see where he is. If he’s ready, he’ll play.’’• Florida has won three games recently against teams that are coming off a game the night before. On Thursday, the Panthers will try to make that four as Ottawa played at New Jersey on Wednesday. The Panthers will be in that situation themselves when they visit Winnipeg on Friday.