So how do you resurrect a season?
How do you connect the dots that bring a team from the abyss to relevance?
For the Panthers, who enter this All-Star Break a playoff contender for the first time in seven seasons, you begin on the early afternoon of Nov. 23.
Rewind: The Panthers are languishing. They’re 30th, dead last, in the NHL and they’re clearly at the crossroads. One road leads to significance and the long road out of the league basement. The other? Obscurity.
After a dull 4-2 loss Nov. 21 in Boston, the Panthers return to South Florida and coach Peter DeBoer begins his daily press briefing by saying, “Everyone here should be on notice.”
“The status quo isn’t good enough,” he added. “There’s going to be consequences throughout the lineup because of that.”
And that begins three weeks that will change a season.
Fast forward: Between Nov. 23 and by the time they end a four-game road swing through Canada on Dec. 14, the Panthers survive a rash of injuries and go 7-2-2 to begin what will be a march up the standings and a shot at the playoffs when they return to action Tuesday at BankAtlantic Center against the Flyers.
“It was during that stretch, when a bunch of guys were injured, that we managed to put together a streak,” said All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.
In fact, since Nov. 23, the Panthers have gone 14-6-7 and have earned points in 21 of those 27 games.
“We started building,” said defenseman Bryan McCabe. “We started playing our style, starting buying into things a little more and created some confidence and momentum that carried on from there.”
It wasn’t easy.
A day after making his comments on Nov. 23, popular forward Wade Belak was placed on waivers. Days later, he was sent to Nashville in exchange for Nick Tarnasky. It all happened after that loss in Boston.
The Panthers had only two days after Boston to prepare for a game at BankAtlantic Center against Southeast Division-rival Carolina. During those two days, DeBoer told his team the upcoming week – with homes games against the Hurricanes, Devils and Rangers – was a chance to reverse their fortune.
“Pete did mention the fact the week starting with Carolina was our chance to turn our season around,” recalled Gregory Campbell. “It was in a team meeting. I think it was here (at BankAtlantic Center). There were a lot of things going on. Obviously, we were last in the league. Things couldn’t get any worse. We got kind of embarrassed against Boston and then, obviously, there was the message with (Belak). He was one of the most liked guys in the room. I think that was an eye opener for a lot of guys.”
“All of us started getting the message it wasn’t going to be tolerated, how we were playing,” Campbell added. “I remember Pete saying he wasn’t going to stand being last and losing and things have to change fast or else things are going to be done.
“I think most of us got the message.”
Panther GM Jacques Martin thinks the team “probably hit bottom” two weeks earlier during a trip to the west coast that was preceded Nov. 2 by a game in Atlanta.
“We lost (in Atlanta) 5-3 but it was one of our worst games,” Martin recalled. “In LA, we were awful. Phoenix we were awful. Then I thought Andy (Craig Anderson) turned things around in Anaheim (Nov. 9), winning the game for us.”
The Panthers returned to Florida and defeated Tampa twice between a hard-fought loss to the Red Wings. But two road losses to the Devils and Bruins brought the Panthers home with the league’s worst record.
Standing at the crossroads, the Panthers made a stand.
|Others coaches and players believe that the turnaround came in the Panthers 3-2 victory over Carolina on November 24th. That came after losses to New Jersey 3-1 and Boston 4-2. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) |
After a 3-2 victory Nov. 24 against Carolina, the Panthers came back from two goals deficits in the third periods Nov. 26 against the Devils and Nov. 28 against Rangers to take single points in each game. It gave them more confidence.
“It led us to believe we could come back and not to give up,” said defenseman Jassen Cullimore.
Bouwmeester had been on the wrong end of games like New Jersey and New York for several years. “When teams score late on you, it puts you in a little bit of a lull,” he said. “But when you do the opposite, it helps to grow confidence.”
Victories on the road against the Capital and Rangers raised that level of confidence. After splitting a series at home against Buffalo and Boston, the Panthers embarked on their four-game Canadian road trip with stops in Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
“I think the road trip through Canada was the crossroads for us,” said DeBoer recently in his office at BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers embarked on that trip in tough shape. They’re top five skilled forwards – David Booth, Nathan Horton, Cory Stillman, Richard Zednik and Rostislav Olesz – were all injured. The Panthers’ offense would include a patchwork of players from their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., including Shawn Matthias
, Kenndal McArdle, Michal Repik
and Tanner Glass.
Despite what could have been a brutal trip and a season gone wrong, the Panthers went 3-1. Stephen Weiss
scored three-game winning goals, Craig Anderson and Tomas Vokoun both played well in goal, Bouwmeester emerged from a scoring slump with three goals, and the line of Campbell, Radek Dvorak and Ville Peltonen took off.
The Panthers had gone from 30th in the league, 15th in the conference, to a tie for ninth in the East with Pittsburgh and one point behind Carolina for eighth.
“We had injuries, we were sitting 30th in the league, and I think we had four or five American League players in the lineup,” recalled DeBoer of the road trip. “Our season could have really gone off the rails at that point pretty easily. But we got some great effort from a lot of different people at that point in the season. Bo got out of his scoring slump that he was in earlier in the season. He was outstanding. Anderson was great in net. Weiss had three game winners in a row. Campbell’s line played great.
“It’s almost like the character people in this organization weren’t going to let the team fall into a black hole we couldn’t climb out of. For me that was the point in the year that really turned things around. Because it showed everyone in the room that our success here wasn’t going to be based on personnel here but on style of play and commitment to system. If we do that, it doesn’t matter who the personnel are here. We’re going to have success.”
McCabe, one of several new players brought in by Martin over the off season, believes the team also needed time to adjust.
“I think everyone had to get on the same page,” he said. “It wasn’t going to happen overnight. A new coach, a new system, a lot of new faces in the lockerroom. Sometimes it takes time, and it’s taken us a little bit. But we’ve climbed in a spot where we want to be, and now we have to keep building.”
For Bouwmeester, who’s never been to the playoffs, the team has put itself in a position where they haven’t been since he arrived in South Florida in 2002.
“In the past we always talked about getting off to a good start and then not doing it,” he said. “The last three years have been like that. You dig yourself a huge hole. But from Christmas on this year we’ve been in a much better position. Still, we have a lot of work to do.
“But if you can have the success we’ve had the second half of the last few years…it’s all good.”