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Surging Panthers Learned From Early-Season Struggles

by Jameson Olive @JamesonCoop /

SUNRISE, Fla. - It's often said that you learn more from defeat than victory.

In the case of the Florida Panthers, the season-long fight back into the playoff picture has been an impressive uphill climb, one that culminated in a franchise-first five-game sweep through a cavalcade of Western Conference contenders this past week.

"It felt, for a while there, that it was tough to string together a few games together at a time," said Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad, who scored three goals on the trip. "I think you learn from that. Obviously we had some new guys added to the team and there were some adjustments there, but now there's no excuse. 

"At this point in the season, everyone's adjusted to each other and I think everyone's a lot more comfortable. We've got a good squad and we keep on saying that. We're good on paper, so we're finally starting to show it on the ice."

In recent weeks, the Panthers' on-paper prowess has been jumping off the page, with top-line forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau sparking the team's offense to the tune of 10 combined goals since both returned to the lineup from injury on Feb. 3. 

"Every team goes through injuries, so you can't use that as an excuse," said Bjugstad, who missed 28 games due to various injuries this season. "A lot of the time it just comes down to whichever team is working hardest in this league. 

"Every team is tough, so a lot of times it just effort. Most teams have the skill, regardless of who's out. I think we weathered the storm well enough when those two key parts of our team were out. Now, there's really no excuse."

With the storm clouds dissipating and the sunshine creeping back in through the clouds, Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie made it clear that it was time for his now-healthy club to make their long-awaited move, boldly stating that Florida's impending West Coast swing would make or break their season. 

At the time of their departure, the Panthers had accumulated 56 points, trailing both the Boston Bruins (60) and Toronto Maple Leafs (61) in the battle for third place in the Atlantic Division.

"I personally think this is huge and the season is on the line," MacKenzie said at the start of the trip. "If we could get through this road trip, I think it, obviously, puts us in a decent position, but also makes a statement that we could play with some of the best in their barns. Our backs have been up against the wall all year, so this is no different."

With their season on the line, the Panthers ended up trailing for just 93 of the 16,000 seconds they played during an astoundingly perfect 5-0-0 road trip, defeating Nashville, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis by a combined score of 22-13.

"That was a really slippery slope that could have went two or three games in the other direction and it would have really taken us out of things," said MacKenzie, a key player on Florida's third-ranked penalty kill. "These guys found a way to win."

With the 23 games left in their season, this recent surge has moved the Panthers right back into the thick of the postseason conversation, as the team now trails Toronto by just one point for third place in the division with two pivotal head-to-head matchups between the clubs scheduled for March. 

Florida is also tied with the New York Islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

"We're in a good position," Panthers general manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe said. "If anybody thought we we're going to be here, I think most people would say no, except every guy in that room. We knew we were going to be in a playoff position. We're there and we're going to get it done."

No longer looking at the bumpy road behind them, the Panthers are now solely focused on the brighter horizon that lies ahead. The team that management carefully crafted during the offseason has finally come together and been fantastic since its inception, posting an 8-3-0 record as an intact unit. 

Still, like any franchise climbing the mountain of success, the Panthers expect to carry some of what they learned during their early-season struggles into what is expected to be an exciting late-season bid for the playoffs, a journey made all the sweeter by their tremendous turnaround.

"When it comes to what we've learned as a team, you can go in a lot of different directions with that," MacKenzie said, taking some time to gather his thoughts. "We certainly learned how valuable certain guys are to our team, like Barkov, Huberdeau and Bjugstad. Then you also learned about the leadership qualities in guys like Trocheck, Ekblad and other guys who really stepped up. I think we learned that there's a lot of young guys on this team that are pretty good and that are going to be good for a long time."

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