TORONTO – The Florida Panthers have gone streaking.
Winners of four straight and six of their past seven, they’re showing significant progress more than a month after the firing of coach Kevin Dineen and hiring of Peter Horachek.
“I really think the new coaching staff, it’s a new culture now,” centre Shawn Matthias said. “We’re playing for each other. We’re playing as a team now, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”
That fun is happening in full view of many folks who have perhaps just a passing knowledge of the NHL. In beating the Detroit Red Wings twice and then the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, the Panthers improved to 3-0 with HBO’s “24/7” cameras in the building.
“We joke around about it, but it’s not something we pay attention to,” Matthias said. “Maybe it’s our lucky charm, maybe. So keep it going.”
Clearly, timing is everything.
The Panthers’ fourth straight victory, 3-1 over the Leafs, came on the same day Dineen was named coach of Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team. Players have moved on, too, embracing Horachek’s system and style.
“We’re looking for our team to progress and get better,” Horachek said. “We’re looking for consistency in our play. We’re starting to get that and the guys are starting to believe that if they play the way we need to play, we can have success.”
Success didn’t come easy earlier this season. Dineen was fired after a 3-9-4 start, and Florida lost eight of its first 12 games under Horachek.
Coaching changes can provide a spark or they can require time to sink in. In Florida’s case, the results are finally showing.
“We’re playing a pretty simple game,” winger Scottie Upshall said. “I think if anyone tries to critique us right now, we’re starting to have an identity where we’re all working hard, and we’re doing the small things, doing it the right way.”
All the small things seem to be working well for the Panthers, whose only loss since Dec. 5 came to the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks. One element to this run that’s not so small is goaltending, which backup Scott Clemmensen has done well with Tim Thomas again injured.
Clemmensen stopped 28-of-29 shots against Toronto making it 68-of-72 in three straight starts. Not bad for a journeyman who had just five appearances before that and started the season in the minors.
“We’ve kind of hung him out to dry here lately, especially at the start of the year,” Upshall said. “When we’ve called on him here for these big games, he’s stepped up and proved why he’s been a solid, solid backup goalie for his career. He came in, he’s made big saves for us.”
Upshall called the stellar goaltending a “big thrill” for the Panthers and deemed it the difference in their turnaround.
But that’s not all.
“Our starts have been much better,” winger Brad Boyes said. “There was a string there where there was about five or six games where we were down one if not 2-0 in the first five minutes. That doesn’t happen anymore, coming from behind as much. There’s that, there’s some consistency with guys are playing with guys, they’re starting to feel better with their linemates, which helps generate some chemistry.”
The killer B’s line of Boyes, No. 2 overall pick Aleksander Barkov and Sean Bergenheim combined for two goals against the Leafs. That kind of production is a good way to make up for not having last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, in the lineup.
Huberdeau has missed the past two games, but the Saint-Jerome, Que., native could return Thursday night at Ottawa.
The Panthers can’t jump the Senators in the Atlantic Division or Eastern Conference wild-card standings, but a fifth straight victory would put them two points closer to a wide-open playoff race. With 47 games remaining, they’re six points back of the Leafs for the second wild-card spot.
“For us we can’t think about it,” Boyes said. “We’ve got to play, we’ve got to look within what we have done in our last few games, we’ve got to continue to do that. When we start looking outside, when we start looking ahead, guys’ heads start to get a little big, especially for us with some experienced guys but some young kids, too.
“We’ve got to make sure we continue to play the way we’ve done the past few weeks and not get too much (into) watching standings.”
Players could just listen to their coach, whose focus on day-to-day operations goes part and parcel with his interim tag. With young talent like Huberdeau, Barkov, centre Nick Bjugstad, defencemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov and the two players acquired from Chicago for Kris Versteeg—forward Jimmy Hayes and defenceman Dylan Olsen—it makes sense that the Panthers are building for next year and beyond.
Horachek may or may not be behind the bench then, though winning helps that cause.
“I have not brought up standings, have not brought up where we are, where we aren’t,” he said. “I’ve brought up where we are today and how we want to play today. I try to keep it in to now rather than the future.”
That approach likely won’t give the Panthers a spark that makes them legitimate playoff contenders, but it’s working right now.
While Dineen embarks on his challenge of trying to win gold in Sochi with Canada’s women’s team, his former players are enjoying good times under Horachek.
“The beginning of the year we weren’t really a team yet. We were kind of still finding our way,” Matthias said. “And now you look at us, we’re all like brothers here. We’re playing hard for one another and playing our system and just everyone’s bought in. That’s the biggest thing right now. We’re having fun winning games, and we want to keep it going.”
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.