The Comeback Cats: Florida overcame adversity this season

SUNRISE, Fla. — The phenomenon of the Comeback Cats really seemed to take off back in late November. The Florida Panthers were trailing the Washington Capitals 4-1 early in the third period, and a three-goal deficit that deep into a game almost always means a loss.

Not that time, it didn’t. The Panthers scored four goals, including the gamewinner with 15 seconds left, somehow pulling out a 5-4 win.

“There’s a belief in that room that we’re never out of a fight,” Florida’s Ryan Lomberg said that night.

That belief never wavered, either.

The best regular season in Florida history — and the best regular season by any team in the NHL this season — is now complete. No team this season had more come-from-behind wins than the Panthers, who now will get ready to see the Capitals again in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series that starts Tuesday.

“You don’t have too many times in your career or in your life that you can be on a team like this,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “And we’re a long, long way from getting to where we want to be. But I think we’ve enjoyed each other. They love playing with each other. They love to compete together. And those are all fun signs and, for me, just to be part of that is pretty special.”

The Panthers had an NHL-best 29 comeback wins this season. They had 24 wins after giving up the first goal, the most in the NHL since Calgary’s 26 such games in 1990-91. They pulled off five wins after trailing by three goals; the rest of the NHL had 14 of those. They had two wins in games where they trailed by four goals; the rest of the NHL combined for three.

“It’s been incredible,” said Jonathan Huberdeau, the team’s leading scorer and Hart Trophy candidate.

The resiliency for Florida this season wasn’t limited to what was happening on the scoreboard.

There was no secret that the Panthers were expecting to be Stanley Cup contenders entering this season, and one of the biggest reasons why was the person calling the shots on the bench. Joel Quenneville is a three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach, someone who gave Florida incredible credibility, and had by far the best winning percentage of any Panthers coach ever. Quenneville got the Panthers off to a 7-0-0 start — and never coached again.

Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, had to resign after he was among those implicated for not swiftly responding to Kyle Beach’s allegations of being sexually assaulted by another coach with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. Quenneville was Chicago’s head coach when Beach said he was assaulted by video coach Brad Aldrich.

The season could have fallen apart right there. It didn’t. The Panthers beat Detroit in Brunette’s first game and kept on winning. They said the chemistry in the locker room would get them through the coaching change. They were right.

“We come to the rink every day and have fun,” Florida’s Brandon Montour said. “And obviously, we’ve got a heck of a hockey club in there. We take each shift, each game, game by game and it’s been showing all year.”

There was no shortage of adversity, either. Team captain Aleksander Barkov escaped serious injury when he took a scary knee-to-knee hit in November. Almost half the roster was dealing with COVID-19 in December. Top defenseman Aaron Ekblad was lost to a knee injury in mid-March, though he is expected back at some point in the playoffs.

They just kept winning, then made some tweaks around the trade deadline, bringing in — among others — Claude Giroux from Philadelphia. Giroux has yet to hoist the Stanley Cup. He decided Florida would be the best opportunity to change that.

“That’s the reason I’m here,” Giroux said. “I’m here to win.”

The Panthers have done a ton of that this season. A partial list of the team single-season records: most wins (by 11, 58-47), most goals (340 this season, breaking the old mark by a staggering 93), most standings points (by 19), most shots on goal (by 240), and most points by a player (Huberdeau had 115, breaking Barkov’s previous record by 19).

They won the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time. They had the longest winning streak in the NHL this season, 13 games. They were the only team to have two separate double-digit winning streaks at home. They were only the third team in NHL history to have separate winning streaks of eight and 13 games in the same season.

All great stuff. All pales in comparison to what the Panthers really want. The franchise — which hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 — has never won the Stanley Cup. This team’s singular goal is to change that.

“I think we have to be appreciative,” Brunette said. “But we also understand there’s a lot more moments that we need to attain to get the big one.”

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