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As More Players Return, Phase 2 Picks Up Steam at Panthers IceDen

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The boys keep coming back to town.

On Wednesday, MacKenzie Weegar got fans fired up when he posted on his Instagram story that he was hopping on a private jet and heading back from Canada to "Fort Laudy" with three of his Florida Panthers teammates in tow: Josh Brown, Mike Hoffman and rookie Owen Tippett.

"We're all pretty anxious to get down there, so we're trying to figure out a good day," Weegar told last week. "I'd love to be there with [the rest of the team]. Obviously, just trying to figure out a good time to come down, but I do have a little FOMO. I miss the guys."

Tweet from @JamesonCoop: Looks like Weegar, Tippett, Brown & Hoffman are South Florida bound. 👀#FlaPanthers | #OneTerritory IG 📸: weegss

With Phase 3 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan slated to begin in the middle of July with the opening of training camp, more players are expected to return to the Panthers IceDen in the coming days.

But before they can hit the ice, all must first pass testing for the coronavirus.

"It sounds like it's very rigorous testing and everything," Brown said. "Every day, temperature checks. If you're feeling you're getting a slight bit off, you got to let them know, don't come to the rink, all those things, and mask on showing up to the rink. Those are pretty good procedures."

For players that have already been participating in Phase 2 at the Panthers IceDen for the past several weeks, the regular COVID-19 tests have quickly become a part of their normal routine.

"It's just kind of natural," forward Colton Sceviour said. "You walk in, walk that same path, you go in that same door, and [all of the testing and rules] kind of now become normal, so to speak."

Recently, the NHL increased the number of personnel that could be on the ice from six to 12. "We've been on for five, six ice times now so we got a good situation," forward Brett Connolly said. "We'll get in there and work out, do a good 30-minute workout and then get on the ice. Because that's ultimately what we need, to feel good on the ice.

"Obviously, they'll try and make baby steps with that as we go but that's just the norm right now. And we're trying to be as ready as possible, but we've definitely made some strides and we feel a little better, obviously, now than the first time we got back on the ice."

While the primary goal of Phase 2 has been to give players the opportunity to get their bodies back into game-shape following a three-month lockdown, it'll soon be time to start looking at the X's and O's when coaches are able to return to the facility once training camp finally kicks off.

If everything goes according to plan, the Panthers will then head out the Eastern Conference hub city (locations, times and dates are still TBD) to begin their postseason run with a best-of-five matchup against the New York Islanders in the never-before-seen Stanley Cup Qualifier.

Entering the qualifiers as the No. 10 seed, the Panthers (35-26-8) are certainly familiar with the Islanders (35-23-10), who own the No. 7 seed. Facing off three times during the regular season, Florida went 0-2-1 against New York, with two of those games behind decided by just one goal.

In the 2016, the Islanders eliminated the Panthers in six games in Round 1 of the playoffs.

"It was actually cool whenever they said we were going to play against the Islanders again," said captain Aleksander Barkov, who was one of four current Cats that competed in that series. "Now, we get another chance. Back then I remember we were kind of young team and had a really good chance to beat them."

For a behind-the-scenes look at Florida's return-to-play process, check out "Panthers Uncaged."

Episode 1 of brand-new online series can be found below! 

Video: Panthers Uncaged: Episode 1

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