SUNRISE, Fla. -- Not many hockey pundits had the Florida Panthers winning the Atlantic Division prior to the start of the 2015-16 season.
It wasn't so much a slight on this group, one that enjoyed a strong second half of last season but still finished sixth in Atlantic. Combine that with the fact that their intrastate rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning, reached the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and the idea that these Panthers could win this competitive division was far-fetched.
Florida coach Gerard Gallant said he wasn't bothered when he didn't see the Panthers atop the Atlantic when preseason predictions were released. Forty-seven wins later, here they are.
"We didn't feed off of that at all," said Gallant, a possible Jack Adams Award candidate. "I really believe last year was the turning point for our franchise. That second half of last year we played well and we could compete with anybody in the League. I think this year when we started out, we knew we were going to be a good team.
"Did I think we were going to win the division? No, I didn't. I thought we'd be battling for a playoff spot and competing and having a good opportunity for probably third place in our division or a wild-card spot. But I just thought the way the guys competed and played … probably around Christmastime when things were going real well for us, we had that 12-game winning streak and everything seemed to be going our way, then we knew you know what? We're as good as any team in our conference and let's go out there and play well and work hard and see what happens. We just took it one game at a time all year, and things worked out at the end."
The New York Islanders, Florida's first-round opponent in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, weren't the least bit surprised to see the Panthers finish in first place. Islanders captain John Tavares said he knew as early as last season the Panthers were emerging as one of the top teams in the NHL.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round is Thursday at BB&T Center (8 p.m. ET; CNBC, MSG+, FS-F, SN, TVA Sports 2).
"They didn't make the playoffs last year, but they certainly made it interesting and were really close," Tavares said. "I think everyone knew, at least the way I saw them, was that they were a very good, up-and-coming team and they were going to do some good things here. I don't think winning the division this year was that big of a surprise, but certainly they're going against some very good teams in that division and it's not an easy division to win."
"Going into the season we were just talking and I was saying, 'These guys are going to be a good team,'" right wing Kyle Okposo said. "They have a really good squad over there; a lot of good young players, good veterans, they seem to play really tight. They're a dangerous team over there."
How this series plays out could hinge on the Islanders' fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, a trio that wears opponents down with the ability to chip in offensively. Martin knows he and his teammates have their work cut out for them against the Panthers, who feature eight regular-season double-digit goal scorers.
"I think everyone knew they were talented, but obviously with Tampa being as strong as they were last year, and a few of the other teams on that side, I'm sure a lot of people didn't think they would win the division," Martin said. "But they're a strong team. They have great goaltending, great defensemen and really good forwards. There's no weakness to their team. It's going to be a big battle. They're at the top of the standings for a reason, and they belong there."