CHICAGO -- The game had ended. The Florida Panthers had lost a two-goal lead and were defeated by the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 at PNC Arena on Sunday. The players had peeled off their equipment, spoken to the media, showered and dressed. They were waiting to go to the airport when general manager Tom Rowe gathered them in the locker room and gave them the news:
Coach Gerard Gallant had been fired. Rowe would take over as interim coach starting with their game against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CH, FS-F, NHL.TV).
"Pretty blunt," Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said. "Made a coaching change. That's it."
The room was quiet. None of the players spoke. Then the players held a meeting amongst themselves.
"It definitely came as a surprise to us," defenseman Michael Matheson said. "I think I speak for everyone in the locker room. The initial reaction is, you feel like it's your fault.
"Not to say that [coaches] don't have an effect on the game, because they definitely do. But at the end of the day, they're implementing a system, and it's up to the players to execute it. And I think that the troubles that we've had throughout this year have been on us as players. We haven't been executing what the plan was set out to be. So it's on us to get it back on the right track."
Video: Where Gerard Gallant should go from here
For the players, this hurts, especially because Gallant was recognized as a player's coach who had success. The Panthers set team records for wins (47) and points (103) last season and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years. Gallant was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
"I love Turk," Trocheck said, calling Gallant by his nickname. "Great guy. Great coach for me. I don't know. Can't control what goes on with management and the coaching staff. It just kind of … You've got to go out there and perform. We didn't perform enough for him."
The Panthers are 11-10-1, two points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. On one hand, that isn't bad. They're in a better position than they were at this point last season. They have been adjusting to an overhauled defense and dealing with significant injuries. But on the other hand, they have been inconsistent and not been meeting increased expectations.
And there was more to it than that. As Rowe said on a conference call Monday, Gallant and the front office had a "philosophical divide," Gallant wanting more size, the front office more speed.
Rowe met with the leadership group at the team hotel Monday, a day off for the players in Chicago, and spoke to the full team before the morning skate Tuesday. He tweaked the defensive-zone coverage and a couple of lines, and he told them he wanted to push the pace.
Video: Friedman on the firing of Panthers head coach Gallant
"The other day was brutal on everybody," Rowe said. "It's a tough, tough decision. And you do have to be sensitive to the players because the players really liked him. They respected him. So I came in and I told them. I said, 'Listen, we're not going to change a whole lot. We need to tweak a few things.' But if I came in here and wasn't sensitive to that, it just wouldn't work. I love our room. I love our leadership group. We got the right guys to help us get going. ...
"We were very, very transparent with them and told them exactly how it went down and why it went down."
Captain Derek MacKenzie said: "They didn't owe us an explanation, but they gave us one, which was much appreciated. Listen, I'm very proud of the accomplishments that this team has made in the last few years. I learned a lot from Gerard as a player but more importantly as a person, stuff that I'll keep with me. With that said … we need to be better. It's our responsibility. We know that."
MacKenzie said the players had talked a lot about "taking care of business and players playing." The players must focus on what they can control: their performance.
"Going around the room, talking to the guys, we all feel very responsible for what's gone on," MacKenzie said. "Quite frankly, our performance to this point hasn't been good enough, and unfortunately, Gerard was the end result of that. But the message has been sent, and we need to be better, and we will be starting tonight."