Last month, the New Jersey Devils coach admitted he watched a Florida Panthers game on his day off.
Panthers coach Bob Boughner, meanwhile, said he caught himself scoreboard-watching while on the bench, looking for out-of-town results.
That’s a glimpse into what it was like the past several weeks as the Panthers made a compelling charge up the standings. From Jan. 30, when the Panthers ranked 28th in the league in points, until the close of their season on Sunday, the Panthers posted a 25-8-2 record. Those 52 points in that span tied them with the Nashville Predators for the most in the NHL.
The Panthers finished their season with five consecutive wins, including two on back-to-back nights after they were crestfallen by the news that they were out of playoff contention.
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Those five wins came in seven days, making the Panthers just the 13th NHL team ever to earn that many victories in that short a time span.
“I think there were a lot of teams that didn’t want to play us,” Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said of the Panthers’ playoff bid that fell short.
Florida earned 96 points, one short of the playoffs. It was also the the third-most points in franchise history.
“We’re extremely proud of this group and the effort they put forward, especially in the second half of the season,” Boughner said after his team beat the Boston Bruins 4-2 on Sunday.
“The message from me [to the team] was to remember how bittersweet this feeling is and to get back here [next season] and try to pick up where we left off.”
For a while in mid-March, it looked like the Panthers were going to make the playoffs.
They were chasing the Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild-card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and computer programs gave the Panthers about a 77-percent chance of success, according to hockey reference.com.
The Panthers had perhaps just three regrettable games in the final two-plus months, losing twice to the Ottawa Senators and once to the Edmonton Oilers.
But the Panthers didn’t lose the playoff berth as much as the Flyers, Jackets and Devils earned their invitations. The Flyers, for example, picked up points in 10 of their final 11 games. Columbus went 13-2-2 in its final 15 games, including 10 straight wins. And New Jersey went 10-3-1 down the stretch.
It was the Devils’ 4-2 road trip March 10-23 that provided the first omen that this would not go Florida’s way. Instead of the Devils folding on the road, they stood tall.
The Panthers’ failure to make the playoffs was made all the more bitter when compared to the incredible success being enjoyed this year by the league’s first-year expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas is coached by Gerard Gallant, the man who led the Panthers to a 2015-2016 Atlantic Division title.
But just 22 games into the following season, Gallant was fired after an 11-10-1 start, and the Panthers were far worse under his replacement, Tom Rowe.
Gallant was subsequently hired by Vegas and has enjoyed unrivaled success, doing so with two former Panthers players among those on his roster, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. That duo combined for 49 goals in the regular season.
Vegas finished the regular season with 109 points, winning the Pacific Division. The Knights became the first team in any of the four major North American sports leagues to win its division in the first year of a franchise started from scratch.
Vegas’ success hurt many Panthers fans, and the same can be said for the Atlantic Division title won by Florida’s in-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Still, this was still a step-forward season for the Panthers. Boughner in his first NHL head-coaching job, proved he was up to the task. General manager Dale Tallon made a great pickup when he brought winger Evgenii Dadonov back from Russia’s KHL.
The Panthers appear set at goalie with veterans Roberto Luongo and James Reimer and on defense with a core group of Aaron Ekbllad, Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson.
It’s at forward where the Panthers may look to add more firepower. Dadonov (28 goals), Jonathan Huberdeau (27) and Nick Bjugstad were Florida’s top wingers. But Florida can use another pure goal-scorer, especially if 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett is not quite ready to be a force.
The Panthers have a pair of All-Star centers in Aleksander Barkov (27 goals) and Trocheck (31 goals), and there is great hope for baby-faced rookie Henrik Borgstrom, 20, who scored his first NHL goal in his fourth game on Sunday.
Borgstrom acknowledged he got pushed around on Sunday and will need to add strength to his 6-3, 185-pound frame if he is to contribute significantly next season.
“I can tell you it’s going to be a busy summer for me,” Borgstrom told Fox Sports Florida’s Randy Moller on Sunday. “There’s a lot to do, overall strength for sure, skating. Guys are bigger, (and) you can be tougher.”
Other forwards had their moments this season, and the Panthers will have to see where 24-and-younger players such as Jared McCann, Denis Malgin, Maxim Mamin and Frank Vatrano fit.
And with the expected retirement of Radim Vrbata, it will be interesting to see which grinder-type veteran forwards return –players such as Jamie McGinn, Colton Sceviour, Derek MacKenzie, Connor Brickley and Micheal Haley.
However it works out, Boughner said the past 10 weeks will help the players who return next season, especially the younger ones who went through it for the first time.
“Essentially, we’ve been playing playoff hockey for two months,” Boughner said. “I think my exit meetings (with the players) are going to be positive and constructive.”