Panthers ‘dying for that chance to win’ after trip to Cup Final last season

“I don’t feel that we had any hangover from the loss,” Maurice said. “We came in with some challenges and met those right away, and training camp was hard and they pushed hard and I wasn’t in the room barking at them to play harder early in the year. I didn’t have to. They played hard.” 

They found their stride, lost it a bit near the end of the season, having a 2-7-1 stretch from March 14-April 2 that nearly cost them the Atlantic Division title. That, plus what happened last season, when the team was forged by the fire of the playoffs, gives them belief now. 

“I think that experience is a huge thing and going through, for most guys, their first really long run last season it’s helped so much going into this season,” Tkachuk said. “Like you can’t even put into words what it’s meant and just how calm we are. Even when we’re getting dominated in games for five or 10 minutes, there’s not a worry in the world for us.”

But there is hope. Hope and pressure. 

“We’re a hungry team,” forward Sam Bennett said. “We had a taste of it. We were right there and came up a little short. We want it badly. I think every guy in this locker room is dying for that chance to win. We’re definitely a group that’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Maurice acknowledged that the Panthers aren’t the top team in the NHL, but also pointed out that there isn’t one best team, especially not in the Eastern Conference. There’s no runaway favorite. But there are 10 teams, maybe more, who have a legitimate shot. 

“So you do your couple laps of the NHL and you look around and go, ‘OK, we’re close,’” Maurice said. “We may not be the best team, the most talented team, but we’ve got assets that can be the best. Then they’re wired …”

He dropped his voice, the hint of a whisper despite the room being nearly empty. 

“That’s why it’s a little edgy around here right now,” he said, back in late March. “Which is kind of a good thing. I haven’t tried to quiet the edge. I haven’t brought too much perspective in the room. I’ll start doing that after tomorrow’s game.” 

The Panthers are seeking the right balance, to marry their hunger, their desire to finish what they nearly completed last season with the sense of fun that they believe is necessary. They don’t want a tight team, they don’t want clenched teeth. 

That’s not when they are at their best. It’s not how they did it last time. 

So how does Maurice do that? Is there a book of dad jokes stashed somewhere under the bench?

“I’m a ridiculously funny man,” Maurice deadpanned. 

The theory goes as far back as Peter Karmanos Jr., the former owner of the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, under whom Maurice coached. He used to tell Maurice that he never saw him smile, that he never saw him enjoying himself on camera. 

“Are you having any fun at all?” Karmanos would say to Maurice. 

“Can’t smile, it’s serious,” Maurice said, his voice deepening. “And then I started laughing a little bit more, right? And then I said, ‘We tell these kids to have fun, have fun,’ like maybe it’s really important that the kids see you have fun, that you should laugh during practice, that you should laugh during a game.

“I thought about that for a long time and then I got older and I don’t [get hung up] as much sometimes about the result. I mean, I’d ask you not to print that, but it’s kind of true. That team last year, I laughed on the bench with. They were funny. And it was also really good medicine at times when things didn’t go our way.”

There were the chirps from Tkachuk. The quips of Montour. There was the dry humor of the Staal brothers, Eric and Marc. There were the many nicknames of Nick Cousins. There was Radko Gudas’ beard.

“It’s one of the components of mental toughness, humor,” Maurice said. “Or resilience. We talk about that.”

This team wants so badly to win the Stanley Cup. It’s ready. 

But is it a team that can win?

“Yeah,” Maurice said. “But it’s not one that should. So it’s not anointed. Maybe ordained is a better word. We haven’t done enough — and this is not a negative — where you would say, if you just play your game you’re going to win. And maybe this year that’s true of everybody. But I would say it’s more of, if we play our game, we’ve got a chance.

“We’re good enough. We’re good enough that we should be able to have some fun with it.”

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