The last time Mike Kelly was calling the shots behind the bench, it was during the 2013-14 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season and he was with the Saint John Sea Dogs.
But, as the Florida Panthers assistant coach prepared to temporarily take the reins from Gerard Gallant on Wednesday against the Calgary Flames — the head coach went to Prince Edward Island this week for his mother Rosie’s funeral — he was not concerned about shaking off rust.
“It’s never a good situation, going in under circumstances like this — you’d prefer not to,” Kelly said after the team’s morning skate when asked about the experience of filling in for Gallant. “The approach is: I’m not looking at it like I’m the head coach … we’ll try to do what we’ve been doing before.
“You hate to see someone go through [what he’s going through] but, at the same time, you try and make it as easy for it as you can.”
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The two, who grew up 15 minutes apart from each other, have a close coaching connection that goes back to their days with the Saint John Sea Dogs from 2009 to 2012. During that span, they led the team to three first-place finishes, three league final appearances, two QMJHL championships (2011 and 2012) and one Memorial Cup (2011).
Gallant, an early favorite for the Jack Adams Trophy, has been a big reason why the Panthers are enjoying their best stretch of hockey in 2015-16.
Heading into Wednesday’s clash at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome — the fifth stop of a six-game stretch away from BB&T Center — Florida had won 13 of its past 15 games, including a franchise-record 12-game win streak, which was on top of 13 consecutive games with a point.
“When you work closely with someone for quite a while, you have a pretty good idea of how they like to do things,” Kelly said. “You know where the pressure points might be.
“Our players have done a great job of getting themselves ready to play. So we want to keep everything as close to normal as possible.”
Corban Knight needed tickets on Wednesday. Lots of them.
The 25-year-old forward — a product of High River, Alberta, which is just 40 miles outside of Calgary — was inserted back on the Panthers’ fourth line against the Flames, a timely roster decision as Knight returned to his hometown to play his former employers.
“When I got the word, I was pretty excited,” Knight said. “A lot of friends and family are coming … I’m not even sure how many. I think I might be [playing for free].”
Knight was drafted by the Panthers in the fifth round of the 2009 draft and never played a game for Florida and was traded to Calgary on June 18, 2013, for a fourth-round pick.
After nearly two seasons in the organization, Knight’s career came full circle when he was dealt back to the Panthers on Jan. 9, 2015, for Drew Shore. The trade came before last year’s game against the Flames — a 6-5 win at the Saddledome.
And, in another twist of irony, Knight’s father, Jack, is a Baptist minister and is the chaplain for the Flames and the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders.
In 12 games since his recall from the Portland Pirates on Dec. 14, Knight has two goals and four assists but was scratched against Vancouver.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Knight said. “But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s been pretty cool to be all the places I’ve been. And, to be back in Florida, it’s been great and it’s been a great experience so far. The fact we’ve been winning, I’m fortunate to be where I’m at.
“I can’t complain.”
THIS AND THAT
D Aaron Ekblad (head) missed his second consecutive game Wednesday. Kelly had no update on his progress and, when asked, offered no comment on the suspension of Edmonton Oilers forward Matt Hendricks, who received three games for his hit on the reigning Calder Trophy winner. … The Panthers released a statement on behalf of TV analyst Denis Potvin, who allegedly made remarks to Daniel Sedin during a melee that ensued after Monday’s overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks: “My choice of words at the conclusion of the Vancouver game on Monday should have been more appropriate. In the passion of the moment and under the circumstances of how the game ended, they came out wrong. For that, I’m going to extend my sincere apologies to Daniel Sedin, Trevor Linden, and the Canucks organization.”