By Tim Reynolds
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — There was a Halloween party for the Florida Panthers players and their significant others on Sunday night, allowing them to spend a few hours enjoying each other’s company while dressed up as something or someone else.
Weirdly, it also helped the Panthers to finally be themselves again.
A wild opening stretch — exhilarating because the Panthers strung together one of the longest unbeaten runs to start a season in NHL history, but emotionally exhausting because coach Joel Quenneville had to resign for his role in how the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t properly address a player’s claims of sexual assault by another coach 11 years ago — is over.
Monday was simply a back-to-work day for Florida, the first real practice under interim coach Andrew Brunette.
“We’re just grinding through here right now,” Brunette said. “Hopefully, this is a step toward getting to the new normal.”
Florida’s eight-game win streak to start the season ended with a shootout loss in Boston on Saturday night. At 8-0-1, the Panthers have the most points in the NHL, one ahead of Carolina — which also started 8-0-0 and goes for a ninth straight win Wednesday at Chicago. Should the Hurricanes win that game, they could match the NHL record for consecutive wins to start a season on Saturday when they visit Florida.
The Panthers don’t play again until Thursday at home against Washington.
“Good month of October,” Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said. “But like we’ve been saying the whole time here, game by game, shift by shift. We’re all focused on Washington here coming up.”
That said, it was simply nice to get a night off.
Last week was daunting in so many ways for the Panthers. Tuesday saw Quenneville’s name feature prominently in the report summarizing the investigation into the Blackhawks’ actions after Kyle Beach made his allegations. On Wednesday, Beach spoke to TSN and revealed his identity (he had been John Doe until then) shortly before Quenneville coached a game against Boston. Thursday, Quenneville stepped down. The next day, Brunette made his debut in Detroit and Florida won in overtime. And on Saturday, the Panthers played Boston again and lost in a shootout.
So on Sunday, Weegar dressed up as “Mr. Incredible” for the team party.
“Made me look pretty buff,” Weegar said.
But the party was over Monday. Brunette was in the middle of the ice at the Panthers’ practice facility, pointing his hockey stick toward the end of the rink where he wanted players to be.
During a break in the action, assistant Derek MacKenzie drew up a drill as players all took a knee around him. They had a laugh when Panthers forward Anthony Duclair broke the huddle with a “good job, Mac.” Later in the session, forward Jonathan Huberdeau and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky were laughing together about something.
It seemed normal again. The new normal, anyway. Brunette is still the interim, insisting his status remains “day to day,” but Weegar likes what he’s seen in the short term.
“He’s a great leader,” Weegar said. “He teaches us a lot of key things, a lot of little things that we didn’t know before. I think he’s been a great leader, a guy who can step into the room at this tough time and really step up.”