One reason Florida general manager Dale Tallon brought in established veteran players with championship credentials this offseason was evident Wednesday morning.
As the team stretched on the ice at BB&T Center, Derek MacKenzie cracked jokes as Willie Mitchell, Shawn Thornton and Dave Bolland chirped in as well.
That light atmosphere allowed younger players to loosen up before what turned into a long midweek practice session.
The Panthers sure didn’t look like a team in the throes of a five-game losing streak — which was the point.
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Thornton, who won the Cup with Boston in 2011 and Anaheim four years prior, said this is the time for Florida to make its stand.
“This is the time when you see the good teams really start winning and teams that aren’t so good start showing some inconsistencies,” Thornton said.
“You can’t hit the panic button but there needs to be a sense of urgency. There isn’t much movement in the standings at this time of year. We need to take advantage of every opportunity you can. It gets tougher and tougher to catch up.”
Florida goes into Thursday's game seven points back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to other losses, the Panthers didn't lose any ground despite Tuesday's 5-4 loss to the Red Wings -- yet didn't gain any either.
“Right now is our playoff. The games down the stretch don’t mean a thing if we don’t win now,” said Mitchell, who was part of Los Angeles’ Stanley Cup championship teams in 2012 and ’14.
“You want to be uncomfortably comfortable which means you're prepared, are doing every with a purpose and know what you're doing. But you’re doing it outside your comfort zone, are pushing your limits.”
Coach Gerard Gallant, who pulled his team into a far corner of the arena after the workout for a private chat, again stressed his team can’t make up ground in one night.
For the Panthers to get back into the mix, they’re going to need to chip away on their deficit one night at a time.
“It’s a fine line in whether you want a team loose or real uptight and I would rather them be loose,” Gallant said. “There’s nothing you can do about last night or the four behind that. Move on. Let’s play the next one and try and get back in the race.”
Florida's recent soft defensive play led the team to recalling Alex Petrovic on Wednesday.
The 22-year-old defenseman recently took part in the AHL All-Star game and has 19 points in 39 games for San Antonio. Petrovic has played in 13 games with the Panthers over the previous two seasons and is expected to play Thursday — perhaps in place of the struggling Dylan Olsen.
▪ The Panthers are also expected to have Thornton back in the lineup Thursday. Thornton has been out since Dec. 6 with a lingering groin injury.
"It's been a while so I'm excited,'' Thornton said. "Jimmy [Hayes] told me today to settle things down a little. I was a little too jumpy. I have eight weeks of energy going.''
With Thornton activated and Petrovic recalled, the Panthers would go into Thursday’s game at the roster maximum of 23 — meaning three players will be scratched against the Blue Jackets.
▪ Gallant said he expected Roberto Luongo would be back in net Thursday after being pulled during the second period of Tuesday's loss. Luongo gave up five goals — four in the second period — but wasn’t blamed for the porous defense played in front of him. Al Montoya came in and stopped all 10 shots faced allowing the Panthers to claw back into the game.
▪ Florida won't find the road to breaking its losing streak easy come . The Panthers are 0-1-1 against Columbus this season and have lost 10 in a row to the Blue Jackets.The Panthers haven’t beaten Columbus at home since Gallant coached the Jackets back in 2004.
Thursday: Blue Jackets at Panthers
When/Where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Columbus leads 14-4-0
Noteworthy: Columbus has won three of its past four but is without star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (76 saves on 80 shots vs. Florida this year).