|Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom stops Penguins forward Chris Kunitz on a shot at the BB&T Center (Getty Images).
Following practice and just before the Panthers jetted off to the Northeast for four of their last seven games of the season, head coach Kevin Dineen brought the team together on the ice. It was a straightforward message from the Panthers bench boss.
After last season's successful campaign, the Panthers were looking for that next step. Unfortunately that didn't happen and with seven games left were officially eliminated from playoff contention. That meeting at center ice was about what he wanted them to focus on the last seven games.
"We've spent some time for the first time today evaluating areas that have been a weakness for us and continue to be,” said Dineen. “So we always feel that around here, we're very constructive and believe that we want to try to get the absolute best out of people and evaluate people on the best that they have played this year.
"That's the standard base set.”
These last seven games will be about finding the consistency throughout the lineup from the forwards and defense to the netminders. The coaching staff also needs to see the best production from the power play and penalty kill units to the even strength lines and pairings.
"In saying that, part of the things we talked about today was making sure that we see that on a consistent basis and that's something that I talked about since two weeks into the season and I'll continue to talk about until we play our final game. It's something that we need more."
A year ago on the very same date, the Panthers had won their first playoff game since 1997, beating New Jersey 4-2 in Game 2. It was an amazing night for the franchise and its fans and it went a full series of seven games before falling in double overtime to the Devils. Fast forward and it's something that stings as everyone was looking to continue to improve.
"We expected more out of ourselves," said forward Tomas Fleischmann who leads the Panthers with 28 points. "What we did this year, it wasn't even close to the way we wanted to play."
"It sucks to be in this position. I feel for the fans," added defenseman Mike Weaver. "I feel for even us. We wanted to have such a good season."
They know they can play the way to be successful. They did it last season and bits and spurts this season. There's certainly no better example of success than the team Florida hosted on Saturday. Even with players out due to injury, the Penguins, the Eastern Conference’s best team attacked in waves, played consistently throughout the lineup and pulled out two points.
"I think we just have to play the system. I find that when we get away from the system, we don't have a great game," said Weaver. "Look at Pittsburgh. One of the best teams in the league. They do the exact same thing every single time. They get it to the blueline, chip it in or they're going and carrying it in the zone. It's a simple game to them. I find when we stick to the game plan and consistently do it, everyone on the ice knows what's going on, there's no doubt in anybody's mind (we can be successful).
For Florida, the summer will be here soon enough and it will be one that they’ll think about what should have been that next step. While a good showing in the last two weeks won’t make up for a missed playoffs, it can help going into next season.
“It's the last seven games, you want to at least feel good about yourself. You want to show something and play hard,” said Fleischmann. “It's going to be a tough summer thinking about what we did and make sure we don't do it again.”
"You have to concentrate right now on one game at a time," said Weaver. "Once the season does end, you reflect on what you like, what you dislike in the season and move forward with that, jumping right into preparing for next season."
When asked about playing well on the road and taking that into next season, Dineen took it in two different directions, looking at both the short and long terms for his club.
"To me, you take things in small snapshots,” said Dineen. “I think this is a good measuring stick for us as a group that there's areas of the game that we have to bring every single game to the rink, whether it's a game day or not.
"We need to establish with players that are in our lineup, given our health situation that have a chance to be here next year that we're going to play the game a certain way and that's non negotiable."
MUELLER MAKES TRIP
With his wife still expecting their first child any day now, forward Peter Mueller joined the team on the flight to Long Island as the Panthers will take on the Islanders Tuesday night. While he missed the game in Winnipeg, joining the team on the Panthers four-game road trip isn’t as much of a worry.
“There are a dozen flights out of LaGuardia a day I would imagine compared to Winnipeg which is a full commitment to get back,” said Dineen. “So for me, you have to weigh different aspects of the season and it favors a first born child but he's on the trip and he'll be in the thick of it until nature decides to ring.”
KOPECKY, KUBA GIVEN OFF
Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky and defenseman Filip Kuba were given the extra day off the ice as both missed some time in Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.
“They'll be further evaluated but I thought it was better that they have two days off the ice and get ready for the road trip,” said Dineen. “Both those players are going to be on the trip. I'm not calling anybody up in the immediate.”
Kopecky took a puck off his skate as he tried to block a shot from the point. Kuba, meanwhile left the game early in the third period and didn’t return with a lower body injury.