BUFFALO, N.Y. – High above the ice at First Niagara Center, the executive chairman of the Florida Panthers can start to see the finish line coming into view.
Simply making the playoffs may not be the goal for players inside the Panthers dressing room, but Peter Luukko doesn’t shy away from how important it would be for business at the end of a season where seemingly everything has fallen into place.
“It would be huge,” Luukko told Sportsnet during a 7-4 win over Buffalo. “I mean one of the issues as new ownership that we’ve had to deal with is the fact that the team was only in [the post-season] once in the last 15 years.
“So we had lost, as an organization, our relevancy.”
That has changed in a major way during a memorable 2015-16 season.
There is something special going on in South Florida, where Jaromir Jagr is closing in on two major NHL milestones and Roberto Luongo is sipping from the fountain of youth with a .928 save percentage. They have two burgeoning franchise cornerstones in Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov, and have signed an $86-million deal with Broward County in December that should quell any relocation talk for good.
Fans are also starting to buy into the what they’re selling, with seven sellouts at BB&T Center and an average attendance of almost 15,000 so far. A slight downturn for the NBA’s Miami Heat has even helped funnel some extra attention their way.
So there is a lot riding on these final 27 regular-season games for the Panthers, which helps explain why there was a hint of tension in the air on Tuesday morning in Buffalo. The team was playing back-to-back following consecutive losses, and had to do so without Barkov and defencemen Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell.
By the end of the night there was nothing but smiles in the visiting dressing room as players scarfed down slices of pizza after another hot shooting performance got them back in the win column.
“It was a must-win game for us,” said Jagr. “I felt like we had the legs today better than yesterday (in a 3-0 loss at Detroit), I’d say. Sometimes it works that way.
“It looked like we didn’t even play yesterday.”
The Panthers lead the Atlantic Division with 70 points – Tampa Bay, Detroit and Boston all have 62 with one fewer game played – and they don’t seem at all surprised by their position. But it’s still not entirely clear what this team can be.
A lot of fun? Absolutely.
The reward after a lot of losing seasons? Evidently.
But a group that can make noise in the playoffs? The jury is out.
What seems abundantly clear is that Florida will approach the upcoming Feb. 29 trade deadline with patience, not looking to mortgage very much of the future for the present. The team’s health will likely dictate how GM Dale Tallon conducts his business, but he isn’t expected to be a major buyer.
Remember that this is an organization that has invested heavily in analytics – one that seems pretty realistic about where it is.
The Panthers have gotten unbelievable goaltending from Luongo and backup Al Montoya this season and currently have four players with a higher 5-on-5 shooting percentage than any single Florida player managed a year ago: Jagr, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Corban Knight.
They aren’t lucky, per se, but they do have the NHL’s third-highest PDO. This is the time to make some hay.
Jagr scored his 17th goal of the season in Buffalo, moving within two of Brett Hull for third on the NHL’s all-time list and 10 points of Gordie Howe for third in that category as well. He continues to go about his business with a smile, noting that his teammates are showing no signs of letting the playoff race affect them.
“Nobody’s really talking about it,” said Jagr. “We just come and play, have fun. There’s no pressure because we’ve got so many young guys. … It’s good for them, I like that. You know what I mean?
There is a little more trepidation among those who have been around the game awhile. Those who know exactly what’s at stake.
The Panthers returned home from here for a six-game homestand, but Gallant was even uneasy about that with St. Louis and Nashville scheduled to visit on Friday and Saturday.
“You look at the schedule and you don’t want to look too far ahead,” he said. “We’re home for the rest of the month and hopefully we can play well and get some points here because we’re going to need all the points we can get.”
In a season where so much has clicked into place both on and off the ice, there is clearly some pressure to keep the positive momentum going.
The Panthers may not be getting heaps of respect around the NHL just yet, but they are building a better foundation at home. And if you spend any time around these players, or see them warming up together amid huge laughter, they sure look like they’re having fun.
“I thought our second half last year would have put us on everyone’s radar,” said veteran forward Shawn Thornton. “If we’re not, that’s fine. I have no problem flying under the radar. We’re not a very narcissistic crew here, we don’t need all of the attention.
“We’re just fine going about our business.”
Luukko is a former Philadelphia Flyers executive who jumped at the opportunity to join the Panthers last year after being alerted about the job opportunity by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
When he looked at the organization, he saw a window of opportunity – albeit one he didn’t expect to open quite so quickly. Now that it has, he feels it’s important to strike.
“In sports, if you’re not geared to take advantage of an opportunity, you can miss a great opportunity,” said Luukko.
“To get into the playoffs would show that we’re relevant again,” he added. “That we’re for real and that we’re a team that can compete.”