When the Florida Panthers left Sunrise last week on their first road trip of the 2019-20 National Hockey League season, there was plenty of mystery and intrigue surrounding new head coach Joel Quenneville’s squad.
After a disheartening loss at home to the Carolina Hurricanes that followed a split in a season-opening series against Tampa Bay, the Panthers ventured north for games against the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils searching for some kind of insight regarding their direction going forward.
Playing the Lightning twice to open the season hardly gave them anything in the way of enlightenment. The in-state rivals had already met three straight times to wrap up the preseason, so each team getting two points to begin the campaign was probably the odds-on result.
But then the undefeated Carolina Hurricanes visited the BB&T Center and put a four-spot on the Panthers in the first period en route to a 6-3 outcome. Much-heralded goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, acquired from Columbus as a major chip during the offseason, lasted fewer than 20 minutes (19:55).
What just three days earlier were cheers from the crowd in the Panthers’ home-opening win turned to boos as they left the ice after that initial period against the Hurricanes.
Tide Begins to Turn in the ‘O’ Zone
A subtle sign of things to come started to emerge after the locals took to the ice for period No. 2. The Panthers outshot Carolina, 40-21, over the next 40 minutes. If it weren’t for the effort of former Panthers netminder James Reimer, that game might have been much closer.
“We have the weapons … every line can score,” said MacKenzie Weegar, whose effort to start the 2019-20 campaign recently drew high praise from Quenneville. “We have a great team in (this locker room).”
Quenneville loves the fact that Weegar was a key element during the first six games.
“(Weegar) has had an outstanding start to the season,” he said.
The first stop on the early season trip was the KeyBank Center, where the Panthers found themselves facing a Sabres team which, like Carolina, came into the contest undefeated. Trailing down to the wire, Mike Hoffman’s goal with 11 seconds left in regulation forced overtime. Florida lost in a shootout but managed a hard-earned point.
A similar if not quite as dramatic narrative was scripted the very next night at the Nassau Coliseum with the Panthers tying the game against the Islanders in the third period before eventually losing in a shootout. This one was unsettling despite the point since it was Florida’s first matchup against a team with a less-than-stellar record (the Islanders were 1-3).
Comeback Drive Produces a “W”
Fast forward to Monday afternoon and a holiday encounter versus the winless Devils at the Prudential Center in New Jersey.
The Panthers struck very early — 16 seconds in to be exact — but the Devils responded with four unanswered goals, three coming over the course of a two-minute span from one late in the first period to two early in the second period.
Once again the Panthers showed their resolve as they stormed back to also score two goals in the second period. The latter goal was the second of two by Brett Connolly with just eight seconds remaining, to make it 4-3.
Then, just 30 seconds into the third period, Weegar lit the lamp to tie it up. This time, however, there would be no need for overtime or a shootout. Noel Acciari and Evgenii Dadonov added goals to put the exclamation point to the Panthers’ comeback.
Panthers pounce on positivity
“I think this road trip has been very good for us,” Weegar said. “We battled back and got points (in every game). No one ever hangs their heads in here; we just keep coming at (teams).”
Quenneville provided an equally optimistic tone.
“This road trip has been a good learning curve,” the man known in South Florida as Coach Q said. “We really played as a team today (against the Devils). We played the right way.”
So the Panthers head back to South Florida and a Friday night matchup against Colorado with four points out of a possible six on the trip. And while it’s far too early to draw any conclusions, it’s the grit and determination behind the points that matters most.
“I’ve seen so much character from this team over the last few games,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “We’re resilient and we fight to the end. If we can have (more trips) like this the rest of the year, I think we’ll put ourselves in a really good position.”
A veteran and award-winning journalist whose work has run the gamut from South Florida community news (Sun Sentinel Newspaper) to Florida Panthers and Miami Marlins (Associated Press), I bring a wealth of experience and a strong readership base to my profession.