SUNRISE, Fla. – With the sting of an early-round playoff exit unlikely to subside for at least a few more weeks, the Florida Panthers were still able to crack a few smiles when asked about the future of the up-and-coming franchise during Tuesday’s locker clean out at the BB&T Center.
“A lot of great things happened to our franchise this year,” Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said. “It’s unfortunate. We played very well. I’m more upset for the players, because they played well. It’s not like we were outmatch, or outplayed, or didn’t play properly, or didn’t work. We had chances to win every game.
“It’s tough to swallow right now, but you can’t lose sight of what’s happened or where we’re headed. We’re positive about the position that we’re in and where we’re headed and what we have in our system, and the players feel the same way.”
The NHL’s most-improved team in 2014-15, the Panthers entered this season as a team many pundits considered to be on the playoff bubble, but still a few years away from being a true contender. For although they possessed some of the league’s top young talent in players such as 20-year-old Aleksander Barkov and 19-year-old Aaron Ekblad, the group’s inexperience was expected to be pose a hurdle that the team was simply were not yet ready to overcome.
Around the midway point of the season, however, there was a breakthrough.
In a series of events that would likely best be retold through some sort of motivational ‘80s movie montage, the Panthers banded together to win a franchise-record 12 straight games, catapulting the once-forlorn franchise to the top of the Atlantic Division and into headlines around the world of sports.
For more than four weeks, Florida simply couldn’t lose.
“That’s exactly what it was,” defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said of the streak. “We couldn’t lose. It didn’t matter if we didn’t have our best game. We played some great teams that were also on winning streaks and we just felt like we couldn’t lose.”
“We really felt like we had a good team that could beat anybody throughout the whole season,” he continued. “We came into different buildings that we hadn’t won in in a long time and we beat those teams. We just had a different mental attitude about the playoffs. We felt we could have went all the way.”
The Panthers, who held on to clinch their second-ever division title, finished the regular season 47-26-9 for a franchise-record 103 points, earning their fifth postseason berth in franchise history and a date with the New York Islanders in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In their six-game series against the Islanders, the Panthers trailed in only two contests, but were eventually eliminated after a pair of double overtime losses in Games 5 and 6. Overall, the Panthers led the Islanders for 152:51, were tied for 240:27, and trailed for only 45:54 of the 439:12 played throughout the tightly contested matchup.
“We all feel like we should have made it past the first round,” center Vincent Trocheck said. “We had the chance to and we played really well. Playoff hockey, especially in tight games like the last few, could go either way. We’re proud of how we fought.”
In speaking with players, it’s clear that Trocheck and the Panthers still have a lot of fight left in them. There is an aura of unfinished business surrounding the team’s now-empty lockers deep within the halls of the BB&T Center, and it is expected to remain there until players return in October, waiting to be picked up and carried into the postseason yet again next season.
“This season is a building block for us,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “We’re smart enough guys in [the locker room] and we’re passionate enough that we’re going to go back home with that pit in our stomach and it’s going to drive every single guy this summer to come back in October ready to go.”
See you in October, Cats fans.