For the final time this season, the Panthers packed their bags Sunday night and boarded their charter for a long road trip.
Although Florida has one last trip to New York remaining, that’s a quick trip with two games on successive nights.
On Tuesday, the Panthers kick off a four-game West Coast swing in San Jose. Florida will visit the Sharks, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim before coming home on Monday.
Eight of Florida’s final 10 games following this trip will be in Sunrise.
“We’re not going to focus too much on what the other team’s situation is,” said coach Peter Horachek, who gave the team Monday off in California. The team returns to the ice for Tuesday’s morning skate.
“I know in California, they’re all the best teams aside from St. Louis and Chicago in the West. We have our hands full, and it starts in a tough place to play. The Shark Tank is as tough a place as there is to play.”
The Panthers have long given up hope for the playoffs as they came into Monday 18 points out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference.
The same cannot be said for the teams Florida is playing this week.
All four teams are either holding a playoff position or close to it. Last Friday, the Panthers hurt New Jersey’s chances in the east — and they would like to do the same on this trip.
“This is definitely not going to be an easy one,” defenseman Tom Gilbert said. “The teams we’re playing have all put themselves in position to be near the top of the league. That just makes it better.”
The Panthers go into this road trip feeling a little better about themselves after picking up three of the available four points over the weekend.
Horachek said his team, which is now stacked with youngsters up from AHL San Antonio, is trying to win every game it can. Although some fans would rather the team continue losing to improve the team’s draft status, tanking is not on the minds of the players.
“We have a lot of new faces, a lot of kids trying to make a name for themselves,” forward Scottie Upshall said. “On a road trip like this with four good teams, we have to just keep things simple.”
Said goaltender Roberto Luongo: “It’s really a good test for our team, see where we're at in tough environments. We'll see what we're made of.”
Shawn Matthias was back at the Panthers’ training facility on Saturday less than two weeks after being traded to Vancouver in the Luongo deal.
General manager Dale Tallon earlier said that Matthias had asked to be traded a few months back as he was unhappy with his situation with the team.
On Saturday, Matthias said he was happy to be dealt away, saying he didn’t fit in with Horachek’s philosophy and wasn’t happy playing the role of a fourth-line winger.
“I think it was obvious [a trade] was going to happen, especially after [Kevin] Dineen was let go,” Matthias said. “I was happy for the move, for the opportunity. I’ve really loved the change so far.
“I think it’s a different atmosphere here, a different culture. You play hard, you play. In Florida too many players are given things and it’s not the right way. … It was obvious whenever guys were out how well I played. Then they came back and nothing changed, nothing happened. I was upset for a while here. I wanted a fair shake. Now I'm in a good situation.”
Horachek tried holding back when asked about Matthias’ comments but made it clear he feels Matthias needs to take responsibility for his standing in the league.
“He’s a talented young player, has size, can skate and has all the tools,” Horachek said. “But he gets in his own way. I’ll leave it at that.
“He went through four coaches [in Florida]. No one is picking on him, no one is saying he can’t play a different role. But there’s accountability and the ability to get out of the victim role and start playing for the accountability of his teammates. Start playing for the team and stop playing for the name and number on the back.”
Since being dealt, Matthias has a goal and an assist for the Canucks. He had three goals in the two games with the Panthers before the trade.