The Florida Panthers established a franchise high-water mark for points in their win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night, but they’re focused on having some tangible success in the playoffs.
Brian Campbell has never missed a game in a Florida Panthers uniform, although there are probably a few along the way that he wished he had. It wasn’t always winning and fun and Spacey in Space hoodies for these guys. Campbell knows what the dark days were like, which makes the bright ones the Panthers are having this season seem all the better.
With their 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night, the Panthers earned their 99th point of the 2015-16 season. No Panthers team has ever had that many points before. And when Campbell steps on the ice Tuesday night in Montreal, it will be the 1,000th game of his career and his 374th consecutive as a Panther. And if things go the Panthers way, Campbell could be part of a Panther team that clinches the Atlantic Division and secures home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. Should the Panthers win Tuesday night in Montreal and the Tampa Bay Lightning lose, either in regulation or extra time, when they visit the New York Rangers, the Panthers will clinch the division.
“The franchise record is nice and 1,000 games means a lot,” Campbell said after the game. “For me, I wasn’t given anything coming into this league. I wasn’t Aaron Ekblad. I love the kid and that’s great because he works his tail off. But it took me a while to get established in the league and it means a ton to me. It means I worked hard to get to a place that nobody thought I would ever get to.”
Like Campbell, the Panthers have taken the league by surprise this season. Everyone expected an improvement and perhaps a run for a playoff spot, but to be in a spot to win the Atlantic with three games to go? That might have been aiming a little high. But the Panthers have done an outstanding job of taking care of their business this season and much of the reason for their rise has been the development of their younger players. And that’s the way it’s supposed to work when you have a good number of high draft picks. If the Maple Leafs, or any other building team, needs a blueprint for building a contending team, there are far worse ones to follow than the one Dale Tallon has established with the Panthers.
In fact, Campbell sees more than a few similarities between this Panthers team and the one that emerged from the ashes in Chicago less than a decade ago. Tallon was the initial architect of that team, too, and Campbell was a mainstay on defense. “I’m hoping we can be like that (Blackhawks) team,” Campbell said. “There’s the naïve factor. I felt like that in Chicago when we went into the playoffs and we didn’t know any better not to win games. Hopefully we can have that attitude in here.”
Cockiness aside, there are some comparisons to be made. The bottom line is that, like the Blackhawks, the Panthers have a host of young players who rely on more than just their talent. And with Jaromir Jagr leading the way, it’s difficult for them not to have a better example of what it takes to be a productive player. And with the likes of Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Willie Mitchell in the fold, the Panthers seem to have found an excellent mix of youthful talent and experience. So when the Panthers do go in the playoffs, they’ll have a core of players who know exactly what to expect.
“We don’t know, we’re going to find out (about our team),” Jagr said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us. It’s something new for a lot of guys to make the playoffs and we’ll see how we’re going to react. It could scare us away or the other way around – nobody is really going to care if it’s the playoffs or not. I hope it’s that way because you don’t feel any fear or pressure and you just go and play the same way.”
That’s probably the best plan of attack for the Panthers. So Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad have no idea what it’s like to play in an NHL playoff game. Thanks to the great season the Panthers have had, they’ll find out soon enough. “Nothing is going to change for us in the playoffs,” Gallant said. “We’re going to play the same guys and they’re going to play the same minutes. All it is to me is you’ve got to ramp it up another five percent and you’ll be fine.”