CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – With their opening round series against the New York Islanders not set to kickoff until Thursday night at the BB&T Center, the Florida Panthers have spent the past several days enjoying a welcomed calm before entering the unfamiliar storm of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Panthers, who will be making their fifth postseason appearance in franchise history, have not won a playoff series since their miracle run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but are confident in their ability to make a deep run this postseason and more than eager to begin the journey.
First, however, they’ll have to survive a few more team meetings.
“There’s lots of meetings,” a chuckling Brian Campbell said following yet another day of playoff preparation at the Panthers IceDen on Tuesday. “I think you want to be a little bit calm, you don’t want to overanalyze anything. It’s hockey, once it comes down to it. We’ve played 82 games throughout the regular season and this is just more hockey that we’re going to play. I think a lot of the young guys have got to learn as they go along.”
As the Panthers prepare for Game 83 on their schedule, the team continues to field questions about the playoff inexperience of several of their young stars, including top-line forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. For although they boast a handful of Stanley Cup winners such as Campbell and Shawn Thornton, the Panthers also currently have 14 players on their active roster with no playoff experience, including five of their top eight leading scorers.
At this point, however, the Panthers won’t be caught counting the ages of any of their players, but rather the days leading up to the franchise’s first taste of postseason action since 2012. The same laid back attitude that helped spawn everything from “Spacey in Space” to “Rotisserie Chicken” remains in the locker room, and players like 23-year-old Rocco Grimaldi claim they are more motivated than intimidated by the impeding spotlight.
“A lot of guys [on this team] have won Stanley Cups,” said Grimaldi, who has 27 games of NHL experience under his belt. “They’ve been far in the playoffs and they’ve played a lot of years. I don’t even know how many combined years, probably 80 or something with (Jaromir Jagr) having 50 of them. We have a lot of guys with a lot of unbelievable experiences.
“We have a lot of veterans that haven’t won and a lot of young guys that haven’t won either. There’s definitely a lot of hunger as a whole team. We want to do it for the older guys, especially. They’ve had such great careers and have been so good with us all year. We definitely want to win for them as well.”
After a day off on Sunday, 34-year-old center Derek MacKenzie said that the team’s veterans decided to “have a chat” with some of the younger players on the roster about the potential pitfalls of the playoffs and everything else that awaits the Atlantic Division champions as they prepare to step onto the big stage.
The message? It’s just another game.
“I think this team has had a lot of success by not overthinking things,” said MacKenzie, who has one goal in six career playoff games. “We’ve just got to stick to the program and play the way we play. There’s obviously being prepared, but there’s something about being a little relaxed too. We don’t need to change much. Let’s just do what’s got us here. I think that’s going to be important for a lot of guys that haven’t played [in the playoffs] yet.”
One young player eagerly awaiting his playoff debut is fourth-year center Nick Bjugstad. The 23-year-old has competed in 226 NHL games since being selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2010 draft, but doesn’t lament having to wait a few more days before getting his first taste of the postseason.
“I think it’ll be good for us,” Bjugstad said of the time off. “We can rest our bodies and rest our minds a little bit. We can quit talking about how we have to focus on the next game and the next game and just focus on the playoffs. I’m excited for that. We’ve got to cherish these next three or four days and really mentally prep and be focused.”
That playoff preparation, Bjugstad says, also extends off the ice.
“You’ve gotta be eating right, you’ve gotta be sleeping right, everything,” Bjugstad said. “All the little things that go into it really become big at this point in the year. A lot of us haven’t played this many games, especially college guys like myself. I know that I’m going to make sure I’m getting my sleep and getting my water in me.”
Sleep well, Panthers. History starts Thursday.