It has been four years since the Panthers were about to open a playoff series.
It only feels longer.
When Florida lost in double overtime to the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of its opening-round series in 2012, the Panthers figured they would be back fighting for the Stanley Cup sooner than later.
Yet here we are. Only three players remain on this playoff team from Florida’s 2012 Southeast Division championship squad — four if you count center-turned-assistant John Madden.
“We had a lot of veterans on that team, and right now we have a lot of young players,” Madden said. “There’s a lot of excitement here, for a lot of guys it’s their first postseason. This is an exciting time for our franchise because we know with these players, this isn’t going to be the last time. A lot of guys exited in 2012. We’re just scratching the surface with this team.’’
There are very few similarities between those teams other than their red jerseys.
In 2012, the Panthers were celebrated just for making the playoffs and ending the NHL’s longest postseason drought.
In 2016, the Panthers look to do some serious damage in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“There’s a different confidence we have,” said Erik Gudbranson, who along with Dmitry Kulikov and Brian Campbell are the only players left from 2012.
“This year, guys want to win it all. It’s that simple. Guys want to go to the end. That’s the biggest focus.”
Florida played a terrific series in 2012 against the Devils and held a 3-2 lead going into Game 6.
The biggest disappointment of 2012 was no one knows what might have been. After the Devils knocked out the Panthers, they went all the way to the Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
“I think we weren’t expecting to make it then, it was kind of like a shock to everyone,’’ Kulikov said. “Inexperience really kicked in then. Today, we have a lot of guys who have won the Cup, guys who have confidence in themselves and each other. We really believe in this team right now. I think that’s the biggest difference.’’
This team relies much more on its homegrown talent than the 2012 team general manager Dale Tallon put together through free agency the previous summer.
If there is any similarity between the teams it’s the experience, although this version has many more youngsters.
Goalie Jose Theodore and Madden, for instance, played their final NHL game in Game 7.
Of the 20 players who were in that 2012 lineup, 12 were out of the NHL this season.
“We had a lot of free agents on that team, purchased a bunch of guys just to get to the [salary cap] floor,’’ Tallon said. “That team came together in a hurry. This team is built to be together for a long time.’’
And unlike 2012, the Panthers are an overwhelming favorite to move onto the second round.
“I think this is a better team, I really do,” Gudbranson said. “We had a great team then, but we can come at you in waves with this group. We’re really solid defensively, our goaltending is phenomenal. Obviously, on the attack, we’re playing the right way. Generally, we’re a better team and there’s so much character here. That’s going to have to come out in the playoffs.”
▪ Coach Gerard Gallant said his team is ready to go. The Panthers haven’t played since Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Florida will start quickly as the Islanders and Panthers Thursday and Friday night as well as a third game in four days when the series moves to Brooklyn on Sunday.
“I think everybody’s antsy to get the game going to be honest,” Gallant said. “I know the guys are tired of practices.”
▪ Florida is expected to start the series without Vincent Trocheck (foot) and Steven Kampfer (ankle).
Game 1, Panthers vs. Islanders
When, where: 8 p.m; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL, MSNBC; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WNMA 1210
This season: Florida won 2-1
All-time series: Florida leads 43-36-8
Scouting report: The Panthers won seven of their final nine games but none of that seems to matter today. The Islanders may have dropped their final two but didn't seem too interested in opening with the Penguins so they're OK with this matchup. New York won the final meeting between the two in Brooklyn last month after scoring three goals in the final eight minutes.