Despite winning just once in the six games since firing their head coach, the Florida Panthers swear they feel they are close to turning the thing around.
General manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe said the Panthers are “as good a team as any in this league when we’re skating and moving he puck” following Thursday’s humbling 5-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
The easiest answer in how the Panthers can begin to start saving their season is the simplest one.
“We just have to win hockey games,” rookie defenseman Mike Matheson said.
That also may be the toughest.
With losses in seven of their past nine games, the Panthers are starting to creep into an area of doubt.
“We’re playing some hockey but when you don’t get the outcome, look at how well we played in Philadelphia, you just have to be patient and realize how long this season is,” Keith Yandle said.
“Good teams find a way to battle through the tough times. Winning brings a different attitude to your locker room and to your every day life.”
After winning the Atlantic Division and setting franchise records for wins (47) and points (103), the Panthers went through wholesale changes from their front office to hockey support staff and even on the roster.
Vincent Trocheck, who had a breakout season which got him a six-year contract in the offseason, told DK Pittsburgh Sports that he and teammates were surprised to see so much turnover.
“We were happy with the year we had last year,” Trocheck said. “We felt we could have built off it. Now, you’ve just got to do what you can do with what you’ve got.”
While players won’t criticize the team publicly, the naysayers and told-you-so’s are coming from all corners of the hockey world.
Rowe promises he and the Florida front office aren’t listening to the noise. The Panthers, Rowe said, have a job to do and they’re going to see it through.
“The only thing we worry about is what is said inside our locker room,” Rowe said before Thursday’s game. “We tell them not to worry about what’s being written about us, what’s in the news. … Our focus is making sure our heads are in the right place, keeping it positive.”
▪ Erik Gudbranson, the most popular Florida players who departed over the offseason, returns to BB&T Center for the first time since being traded to Vancouver in June.
Gudbranson, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft, scored his first goal of the season in Vancouver’s win in Tampa on Thursday night.
The Panthers plan on honoring Gudbranson with a video during Saturday’s game.
“I'm excited. It's going to be fun,” Gudbranson said. “It's going to be really weird for sure. But it's going to be fun. I made a lot of friends there. I spent five good years there and went through some serious low times and some really good up times so I'm excited to be back.”
Like many around the Panthers, Gudbranson said he was shocked to see Gallant – a finalist for the NHL’s coach of the year award last year –be let go 22 games into this season.
“It's an unfortunate situation,” he said. “I really appreciated him as a coach and he did a lot of good things for myself and that group. [My reaction] was probably just like the team -- didn't see it coming. But unfortunately, sometimes that's the way it goes.”
▪ Rowe continues to tinker with Florida’s forward lines in trying to reach the right fit. On Friday, Seth Griffith moved up to the top line with Sasha Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.
Reilly Smith had been playing there the past few games but returned to the second line with Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen.
“We’re going to give him a look up there,” Rowe said of Griffith. “He’s a skilled kid, we want to see what he can do with those guys.”
Saturday: Canucks at Panthers
When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.
Series: Vancouver leads 14-9-6.
Scouting report: Saturday’s meeting is the first between the two teams since Vancouver ended Florida’s 12-game winning streak with a overtime victory last January. That game is best known for the near-brawl which followed the game and TV commentator Denis Potvin’s comments on Henrik and Daniel Sedin.