In the midst of the finest regular season in Florida Panthers history, coach Gerard Gallant said he would look back and reflect on their accomplishments when it was all over.
That time came more quickly than he thought it would.
Florida’s season came to an abrupt end Sunday night when the New York Islanders beat the Panthers 2-1 in double overtime to win their best-of-7 first-round playoff series in six games.
The Panthers might have set franchise records for wins (47), points (103) and longest-winning streak (12), yet the mood at Tuesday’s final day at BB&T Center continued to be one of disappointment in what could have been.
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“It’s still tough, we’re still looking for answers in why we’re not playing [Tuesday] or moving on,” Roberto Luongo said. “It’s part of the business; when you care, it’s tough to accept certain things.”
Florida’s players and coaches arrived at their arena in Sunrise to clean out lockers and hold exit meetings.
They were greeted by large playoff banners still on the arena’s facade with pictures of players such as Jaromir Jagr and Sasha Barkov on them, the hashtag #HistoryStartsNow a reminder of what their goal was when the postseason started two weeks ago.
With a win Sunday, the decisive Game 7 against the Islanders would have been here Tuesday night.
Instead of a morning skate at the arena in preparation for what would have been one of the biggest games in franchise history, players chatted and made plans for their end-of-year party and their offseason.
The Islanders, meanwhile, still came to Florida on Tuesday, but it was to open their series with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.
“I wasn’t thinking about [a possible Game 7] anymore but when I turned right from the light and saw all the banners and everything, I started to,” Barkov said. “We should have won the last game, we should have had a Game 7 here. But, it’s over. Now we need to get ready for next season.”
Despite the disappointment, there was much to celebrate this season.
After getting just 66 points two seasons ago, the Panthers got 103 this year and their second division title in franchise history.
Three years ago, Florida had the worst record in the NHL.
“There’s a lot to be said for our team, what we accomplished this year and how far we’ve come,” Nick Bjugstad said. “We have a bad taste in our mouth right now but we’ll come back hungry.”
Jagr, arguably the team’s MVP this season, said he was happy to be part of the Panthers’ resurgence as the team gained confidence and noticed the buzz surrounding it.
Florida was five points out of the playoffs on Thanksgiving and 16 points back of the first-place Canadiens before going on a run that had them atop the division by January.
Attendance was up almost 40 percent over last season as the team had its two biggest crowds in history and announced 14 sellouts.
“You could see the team and the fan base getting stronger and bigger,” Jagr said. “You like to see that. The fans are coming to the game because they followed and believed in our team.”
One of the many fun elements of this team was its “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt, a one-year wonder unofficially retired Tuesday as equipment manager Chris Scoppetto brought it out to team president Matt Caldwell, who said it would be be framed and put somewhere in the arena to commemorate a season worth celebrating.
“It was a really good season, but I didn’t like the way it ended,” Shawn Thornton said as the mystery surrounding the story behind the sweatshirt remained.
“I thought we had a legit chance to make a big splash this year, thought we played well enough to go a little further. But [the Islanders] are going and we’re not. We’ll learn from it.”