Minutes after the Panthers’ season had ended in crushing fashion off a John Tavares’ goal in double-overtime, owner Vinnie Viola bounded toward his team’s locker room with a look on his face that said, “What are you going to do?”
Florida lost back-to-back games to the New York Islanders in double overtime, and the Atlantic Division champion Panthers were knocked out of the postseason in the second- and third-longest games in franchise history during a span just shy of 48 hours.
Viola, always looking ahead, changed his mood quickly when he thought of all the talented players his team has and how much experience they gained in this all-too-quick postseason.
“Next year,” Viola said, pointing. “Yeah!”
There isn’t expected to be much change on the Panthers’ on-ice product, although there will be some additions and subtractions as is always the case.
Off the ice, the Panthers will unveil completely new uniforms and a logo in June and could tweak their management staff as they have throughout the two-plus years Viola and Doug Cifu have owned the team.
Florida set franchise records for wins and points and surprised many by not just making the playoffs but also by winning its division.
“We never quit. Nobody picked us to win the Atlantic,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “We got 103 points, came a long way. We have a lot of young players and you see how good we’re going to be for the next couple of years. That’s the positive. It doesn’t feel great now, but moving forward, I know we have a great team.”
Said Vincent Trocheck: “Everyone underestimated this team. We have a lot of good guys in here, and we really believed we could go all the way.’’
The Panthers’ core group of players are settling in quite nicely, with the likes of Sasha Barkov, Erik Gudbranson, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Trocheck having breakout seasons.
Other key players, such as Nick Bjugstad, Jussi Jokinen, Dmitry Kulikov and Derek MacKenzie are all signed at least through next season.
The Panthers, who extended the contracts of Gallant and general manager Dale Tallon earlier this season, also have a bunch of hungry youngsters waiting for their chance.
And losing in the playoffs — the Panthers would have had their long-awaited Sunshine State series with Tampa Bay in the semifinals had they won — could actually help Florida in the long run.
Few teams pick up from nowhere and drive deep into the playoffs. Losing today can be a fuel for the future, a learning lesson the Panthers won’t soon forget but would be wise to learn from.
Gallant said he didn’t want to admit “every time you lose, you get better from it. You have to lose before you win. I just wish it didn’t happen [Sunday].”
Jaromir Jagr, 44, a pending free agent who is said to share mutual interest with Florida to return again, said his young team could learn the importance to closing out games especially with so much at stake.
“I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to lose this way to win it next year,” Jagr said.
Said Gudbranson: “You can see it in guys faces, how hard we’ve worked to get to this point. This is tough to swallow. To become a better player, you need to feel the burn and the aches to understand how truly hard it is to win that Cup.’’
The toughest part for the Panthers as they head home is the question of what could have been this year. Forget about next year, many pegged the Panthers as a Eastern Conference finalist when the playoffs started.
The Panthers, making their first appearance in the postseason in four years, were tough on an Islanders team that just so happened to finish much better than Florida did.
New York held a lead in just 46 minutes of a series that went 439 minutes but had a hot goalie in Thomas Greiss, a superstar rising to the occasion in Tavares and a penchant for scoring late.
Three of the Islanders’ wins came in overtime, including the final two in double overtime.
Florida was less than a minute away from forcing a Game 7, which would have been played Tuesday in Sunrise.
“We felt coming in we were going to win this series,” Gallant said. “We felt we had a good chance to beat anyone. This is tough.’’
Now, come Tuesday morning, the 2015-16 Florida Panthers will gather officially for the final time.
Lockers will be packed up, sticks taped together and taken home.
A season with so much promise is over, but the future sure looks bright.
“This was a big season, we took a huge step,” Roberto Luongo said. “But right now, it’s just disappointment. It’s tough to think of anything else.”