Although the final weeks of the Panthers’ season has dragged on, coach Peter Horachek doesn’t want his team to be happy the end is near.
He wants them to be mad that after Saturday’s game against Columbus, it’s over.
No more practice, no more morning skates, no more games.
As is usually the case around these parts, no Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It’s an empty feeling when you finish the game, you know you’re not going to the playoffs,” Horachek said after he gave most of the team Friday off after Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Maple Leafs.
“I want the players to know what a bad feeling this is. I want us to go out and win, put the effort in to win, and know this is a really [lousy] feeling. I don’t want this feeling going forward. We should be in the playoffs. The only thing we should be thinking about is the playoffs.”
Horachek talks like he has a plan for the future although as the team’s interim coach, he doesn’t know whether he will be back to be part of the solution or not.
General manager Dale Tallon has said there has been no discussion of whether Horachek returns next year, saying that a decision on that will come next month.
A number of experienced NHL coaches — including Horachek’s friend and longtime Nashville bench boss Barry Trotz — could be available in the coming weeks, and the Panthers are going to look at a number of different scenarios.
Horachek sure talks as if he will be back with the Panthers and believes he deserves the opportunity.
Florida showed signs of improvement under his watch as the Panthers were 3-9-4 when Kevin Dineen and his staff was fired in November.
The Panthers were 21-24-7 after winning in Detroit on Jan. 26, but injuries and inconsistent play plagued them over the final months.
Florida goes into Saturday’s season finale with wins in two of its past three games, but overall has lost nine of 12.
“We should still be playing,” Horachek said, “and in the future, we need to keep pushing to get to that point. We’re just scratching the surface right now. There are so many things we can continue to get better. … After [Saturday], I’m going to go, ‘Ugh. This [stinks].’ It’s an empty feeling. And I don’t want us to feel it again.”
One player who is definitely part of Florida’s future plans is goalie Roberto Luongo. The Panthers reacquired Luongo on March 4, Luongo coming to a team he knew was out of playoff contention.
Finishing out the string of games has been tough, but Luongo has been looking toward the future. He likes what he has seen in young players such as Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck.
Florida is also excited to see rookie Aleksander Barkov blossom in his sophomore season after he missed the past two months with a knee injury.
“It’s a bit sad that this is it, so we want to finish on the right note,” Luongo said.
“... It’s disappointing not to make the playoffs, but I think it’s about looking forward to building up next year.”
Horachek said he doesn’t really care that the Panthers could set an NHL record for having the fewest points lead a team in scoring.
Bjugstad is Florida’s current leader with 38 points — one away from tying the mark of 39 set by Minnesota’s Scott Pellerin in 2000-01.
“The bad thing is we’re not in the playoffs,” Horachek said. “I really don’t care about the rest of it.’’