SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Losing to Tampa Bay was bad enough for the Florida Panthers in last season’s playoffs. Watching the Lightning go on to win the Stanley Cup, oddly enough, didn’t make things worse.
It only further convinced the Panthers that they can win it all.
Expectations are sky high in Florida, a franchise that is coming off the best regular-season record in team history and has a core — Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and more — all at the ages that suggest the primes of their career are here.
The rebuild is complete. The Panthers say it’s time to win.
“We kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Huberdeau said. “We know we have a good team. We have a good chance. I think it doesn’t matter on paper if we look better than last year. We’ve got to do it on the ice.”
A look at the Panthers:
Florida led the NHL in shots on goal and was fifth in scoring last season.
There’s no reason to think the offense won’t be at least as productive this season, and there are clear areas that can be improved (15th in the NHL on the power play, 21st in shootout shot percentage).
And while neither Barkov nor Huberdeau has ever shown much of an interest in stat-padding, it’s certainly not outside the realm that one of them — or another Florida forward — could be among the NHL scoring leaders this season. The last time Florida had a player finish higher than 10th in overall scoring was 2000-01, when Pavel Bure led the league in goals and was seventh in points.
Sergei Bobrovsky changed some things this summer, at the Panthers’ request, and the team believes the goalie who will start the season as their No. 1 will play like an ace again.
If not, Spencer Knight — the heir apparent — is waiting, and as he showed in the playoffs last spring, he’s also ready.
Florida has two brutal stretches that could prove critical.
It plays seven games out of nine on the road from Jan. 18 through Feb. 1, then has a run of nine road contests in a 10-game span from March 7 through March 27.
It’s not much of a tradeoff wedged between those two diabolical stints, but the post-Olympic schedule calls for the Panthers to open with a four-game homestand.
The bottom line: Florida can’t waste points early in the season, because making them up in the second half of the year will be daunting.
Joe Thornton — the 42-year-old bearded one who signed with Florida this summer in his pursuit to finally win the Stanley Cup — could climb into third on the NHL’s all-time regular-season games played list.
He enters this season with 1,680, which is 51 behind No. 5 Ron Francis, 53 behind No. 4 Jaromir Jagr and 76 behind No. 3 Mark Messier. Out of reach this season: No. 1 Patrick Marleau (1,779) and No. 2 Gordie Howe (1,767).
Thornton has 1,529 points; he’s two back of No. 12 Paul Coffey and No. 11 Mark Recchi.
Going back to traditional divisions won’t do Florida any favors, and it looks like five teams — including the Panthers — are realistically in the mix for the three automatic berths out of the Atlantic.
The Lightning and Montreal played in the Stanley Cup Final; they’re both in the Atlantic this year, along with Boston (which has made the playoffs in 12 of the last 14 seasons) and Toronto (which has the sixth-best record in the NHL over the last four seasons).
Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit are the NHL’s three worst teams over the last four years, though the Senators should not be anywhere close to bottom-feeders this season. Put simply, making the playoffs out of the Atlantic will be no easy task.
“You’re going to have to have a heck of a year just to make the playoffs,” coach Joel Quenneville said.