Gerard Gallant was asked whether he saw this coming, if he believed that last month his Florida Panthers could win seven consecutive games much less 13 of 16 to take over first place in their division.
“Of course,” Gallant said with an exaggerated wink.
“We were 3-6-3 and it was looking bad, we were headed on a tough road trip. But the guys battled. But they believe in themselves, know they are a good team. If we battle and play the right way, we can beat anyone on any given night.”
Gallant, in his second season as coach of the Panthers, is starting to gain serious buzz around the league as not only a candidate for the league’s coach of the year honor, but perhaps the favorite to win it.
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Last year, Gallant’s Panthers made the biggest improvement in the league, going from 66 points to 91, keeping their playoff hopes alive into the final weeks of the season.
“That was a big step,” Gallant said. “The guys knew we were close.”
Florida didn’t make the postseason but were closer than it had been in a few years and the seeds for this year’s success were sown.
Like Gallant, Jaromir Jagr was asked whether he could foresee what the Panthers have done lately.
“After what I saw last year in those last 20 games, yes I did,” said Jagr, who came to the Panthers for a few draft picks in February.
“I think we are very confident right now and that’s helping us lately. Great goaltending is key but we don’t make risky plays because we’re confident our offense is going to make plenty of plays.”
The Panthers, with Jagr leading the charge, are loose yet very focused.
Florida has tied a franchise record for consecutive wins, and has had two of the longest winning streaks in the past few seasons just this month as it won five in the early part of December.
The winning streak has definitely caught the attention of the national hockey media, but perhaps more importantly, the local media as well.
On Tuesday, a number of local outlets did live feeds from BB&T Center, and Florida’s postgame locker room was packed with reporters.
“I know there are questions and I don’t know if many people believe in us,” Jagr said, “but what’s important is these 20 guys believe in each other. That’s what is important.”
During this 16-game run, which started with a 3-2 shootout win over the Islanders on the day after Thanksgiving, the Panthers have won six of seven at home and seven of nine on the road.
Florida went into the Islanders game in sixth place in the division, 16 points back of the Canadiens and five out of a playoff spot.
Fast-forward and the Panthers will ring in the New Year atop the division. Florida went into Wednesday holding the second overall spot in the entire conference behind Washington.
Not a bad month.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to be in first place in the New Year,” Gallant said.
“It’s all about trying to make the playoffs so first place doesn’t matter. It’s about getting as many points in the bank as we can and we’re on a good roll now. We just have to keep it going. There’s more than half the season left to go and things change in a hurry.”
▪ The Panthers’ sellout Tuesday was their second of the season as attendance has been on the upswing all year.
The team winning 13 of its past 16 games sure isn’t hurting business.
Florida was last in attendance last year with an average of 11,265. This year, the Panthers are 27th by averaging 13,630.
“It’s been a pretty exciting time right now, obviously,” team executive Peter Luukko said.
The Panthers are 4-0 on this current homestand with the Rangers and Wild finishing it off this weekend.
▪ Luukko was asked whether the Panthers were talking to Jagr about another one-year extension, and Luukko laughed.
“We would love to have him back next year, and in fact, we would like to have him for the next seven years,” he said of Jagr, who turns 44 in February.
The Panthers are in talks with a few upcoming restricted free agents including Sasha Barkov and Vincent Trocheck.
Florida is interested in signing Barkov, 20, to a long-term deal, and he could be the first player the Panthers sign to the league maximum eight years.
▪ Barkov was Tuesday’s recipient of the team’s new way to celebrate a win: A blue sweatshirt with the image of actor Kevin Spacey’s face, floating in space.
“I have no idea what it means,” Barkov said with a laugh. Erik Gudbranson told the Miami Herald, “you’ll never figure it out.”
On Wednesday, Spacey responded to a series of tweets from a Herald reporter on the subject. Spacey wished the team continued success and wrote “only I know what #SpaceyInSpace means.”