In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, the Panthers hold their first practice of the postseason, Sam Bennett is close to returning, and Carter Verhaeghe isn't feeling rusty.
SUNRISE, Fla. - Prior to hitting the ice for their first practice of the postseason on Wednesday morning at BB&T Center, MacKenzie Weegar said the Panthers huddled up for a quick pep talk.
"We just said that the fun starts now," Weegar said. "A lot of excitement and lots of smiles here. We know we've got a big task ahead. It's going to be a long run here, but we're looking forward to it. We're getting prepared this week. It's going to be a good week, then we'll go from there."
For the Panthers, the smiling seemingly hasn't stopped since the puck dropped in January.
Heading into the postseason on a six-game winning streak, the Panthers finished the season with a record of 37-14-5, giving them their best points percentage (.705%) in franchise history.
Finding consistency right away despite numerous new players being thrown into the mix, the Panthers never dropped more than three games in a row throughout the season, which kept them firmly in the fight for first place in the Central Division right up until their last few outings.
In the final tune-up before the two cross-state rivals meet for the first time ever in the playoffs, the Panthers dominated the Lightning in consecutive games - winning 5-1 on May 8 and then 4-0 on May 10 - to lock in the No. 2 seed in the division and home-ice in their Round 1 matchup.
"The storylines are always great, but as players we just go out there and take it game-by-game," Weegar said when asked about the buzz around the upcoming series. "They're Stanley Cup champions. We want to beat them, and they want to be the Stanley Cup champions again."
While the Panthers await the schedule for their impending Sunshine State series, that game-by-game approach is currently more of a practice-by-practice approach. And during this morning's session, the intensity was certainly high and the enthusiasm from players radiated from the ice.
Taking a look at their season series, the Panthers should be full of confidence after going 5-2-1 against the Lightning. In those games, they won by a combined score of 31-24, including putting up 20 goals in six contests against former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That being said, Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, who led the Blackhawks to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, doesn't put much stock in any of those statistics. After all, the playoffs are a completely different beast. So, instead, he would prefer to see players use these pre-playoff practices as a chance to brush up on the basics rather than relish in any regular-season glory.
"Before you go into a series, I think you just want some reminders about how we have to play," Quenneville said. "We want to be quick, want to play fast; they're quick, they're fast. Reminders of what they like to do. They're a strong possession team, and checking's going to be important.
"How we play without the puck in our own end is going to be extremely important. I think that you get some reminders in there. You get a little bit of things to look for, too, as far as what to expect in certain situations. The bottom line is trying to reinforce what makes us successful."
With the playoffs on the horizon, Quenneville, like his players, is itching to get started.
"Let's find a way to overcome all obstacles," Quenneville said. "Our challenge couldn't be any tougher than what we have. Let's go. Let's welcome it."
BENNETT GETTING BETTER
The Panthers were only missing one of their regulars during this morning's practice.
After sitting out two of the last three games while nursing an injury, Sam Bennett wasn't part of the main group, but did skate before practice began as he works to get back up to full strength.
That being said, it doesn't sound like he's in danger of missing any playoff games.
"He's alright," Quenneville said. "We expect him to be fine and likely join practice on Friday."
Expected to slot right back into the middle of the team's second line once he returns, Bennett has quickly become both a fan-favorite and a key player for the Panthers ever since he was acquired from the Flames only a few hours before the NHL's trade window closed last month.
Taking advantage of his sudden change of scenery, the former fourth-overall draft pick went on to rack up 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games with Florida after having produced just 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 38 games with Calgary before being shipped to the south.
A proven big-game player, he also tallied 19 points in 30 career playoff games with the Flames.
"He's been effective in a lot of ways," Quenneville said. "He brings a nice element to our team."
As for other injury updates, Brandon Montour and Jonathan Huberdeau, who each missed last game, were both full participants at practice, while Patric Hornqvist, who missed the last seven games of the season with an upper-body injury, was also on the ice operating at full capacity.
NO RUST FOR VERHAEGHE
Speaking of injuries, Carter Verhaeghe can happily say he's feeling great again.
Following a 13-game absence due to an upper-body injury, the 25-year-old forward returned to the lineup just in time to score a goal in Monday's 4-0 win over the Lightning. Skating 16:01, he was overjoyed to get a taste of game action rather than returning in the heat of the postseason.
"The rust last game wasn't even my injury, it was just my legs and getting back into it," Verhaeghe said when asked how he felt after being out of commission for roughly a month. "Now, after getting a game under my belt and getting some confidence, I'm pretty much 100%."
Helping make his return as smooth as possible, Verhaeghe was deployed right back in his old spot against the Lightning, skating alongside Anthony Duclair and Aleksander Barkov. One of the most effective trios in the NHL this season, that line has been dynamite since its inception.
A dominant force in the possession game, that line spent 236:55 on the ice at 5-on-5 together, per NaturalStatTrick.com. In that time, the Panthers owned 61.67% of shot attempts (280-174), 64.29% of shots (171-95), 65.45% of scoring chances (144-76) and 65.22% of goals (15-8).
"They're both great offensive players, just both great players in general," Verhaeghe said of his linemates. "Barky is so good with his stick, and we have some great chemistry with Duke. I'm just lucky to play with them and really excited for what's to come."
As far as individual numbers go, Verhaeghe's first season with the Panthers was nothing short of exceptional. After accumulating nine goals and four assists in 52 games as a rookie with the Lightning last season, he went on to register 18 goals and 18 assists in 43 games this season.
Among players that competed in at least 15 games, Verhaeghe, who is known for his tenacity around the puck, also finished first on the Panthers in expected goals per 60 minutes with 3.09.
"He had a heck of a year," Quenneville said. "You look at stats, and I think he might be in the top-two in the league in expected goals for. He's got pace and creativity with the puck. … I think him and Barky and Duke have been one of those lines that really makes an impact on the game. … We certainly missed him when he was gone, but he was good about what he had to do to get himself ready to come back."
WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksi Heponiemi - Owen Tippett
Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist
Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Mason Marchment
Grigori Denisenko - Juho Lammikko - Nikita Gusev
Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar
Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas
Markus Nutivaara - Branon Montour
Kevin Connauton - Anton Stralman