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Cats Embracing Pressure After Record-Setting Season

by Jameson Olive JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers are ready for their close up.

In a day filled with medical tests, photo shoots and endless interviews, the only thing shining brighter than the flash of the cameras was the smiles etched onto each player's face as they made their way through the Media Day gauntlet at the BB&T Center on Thursday.

"We're ready to get going," center Nick Bjugstad said. "I'm honestly getting sick of playing shinny hockey. I'm ready to get going and play some real hockey, get training camp going. We'll have a hard working training camp and then be ready to go."

After racking up a franchise-record 103 points and winning the Atlantic Division last season, the Panthers suddenly find themselves in uncharted waters as they attempt to follow-up last year's historic performance with an even better showing in 2016-17. No longer one of the league's best-kept secrets, Florida is no longer viewed as a team on the rise, but rather one that has already arrived and ready to compete for a Stanley Cup.

 

"I think here's a lot of hype and a lot of buzz about our team right now," said winger Reilly Smith, who scored a career-high 25 goals last season. "Last year didn't end the way we wanted to, but we did some great things with our team. We achieved a lot of goals. Making the playoffs was a big goal for us; finishing first in our division was another big goal. But there's still that big one at the end of the tunnel that we didn't come close enough [to reaching].

"There's a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouth and we'd like to get back [to the playoffs]. We definitely have enough skill in our dressing room to get us back to that point."

In an effort to continue their upward trajectory, the Panthers entered the summer with their sights set on making numerous fortifications - both in the long and short term -- to a roster that already boasted four 25-goal scorers, three All-Stars and two Calder Trophy winners. Added were Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, Jared McCann, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault and James Reimer, while Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Derek MacKenzie all signed multi-year extensions.

With these moves, however, also came increased expectations.

"I think that pressure is a great thing," said Smith, who signed a five-year extension in July. "There's certain things like that you can build off. I know, probably, the first or second year of my career, Florida was a team you wanted to play. I don't think it's like that anymore. I think that pressure builds to greatness and I think that's where our team is headed."

With a target on their back for the first time in nearly two decades, the Panthers likely won't have to worry about any lack of pressure as they expect to be on the receiving end of opponent's best efforts night in and night out. For although they enter the season with an improved lineup, it's safe to assume that the majority of their competition bolstered their own ranks.

"It's going to be tough," said Jaromir Jagr, who led the Panthers in scoring with 66 points last season. "First of all, it's a long season. Even if we finished first in our division [last season], nobody is guaranteed a playoff spot. Look at how many great teams didn't make it. They're going to be better; they're going to improve. 

"Even if you finished first, you still have to be better, because the competition is going to be better. Our goal, again, is to make it step by step to make the playoffs again."

Those first steps towards the playoffs will take place on Friday when the Panthers return to the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs for their first official on-ice session since being eliminated by the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals in April. 

And, if the Panthers have it their way, next summer will be much, much shorter.

"We're ready to take the next step," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, who is already sporting what he jokingly described as an early playoff beard. "One of the main reasons why I'm here is because I envisioned [success]. 

"I'm happy to see that [ownership] is committed. We've got a lot of young skilled forwards and defenseman locked up for a long time. It's going to be exciting to see this group evolve over the next few years."

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