Dave Hyde: Panthers, looking for ultimate success, rely on many whose careers have seen rough patches

Dave Hyde, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in Hockey

There are struggles all over the ice for the Florida Panthers. Doubts. Questions. They’re anywhere you look on the roster. Doubts, questions, even full-on failure.

Yes, after consecutive losses to Edmonton, if you’re the Panthers, you’re confident of one thing:

Your players’ paths show they know how to overcome outside doubts and public questions. It’s embracing success that’s the issue now. But doubts? Failed hopes?

Coach Paul Maurice has been fired three times, resigned a fourth, and, for all the mentions of him as the fourth-winningest coach in hockey history, he’s also the all-time losingest coach. At 57, he knows what’s at work in a best-of-seven series, even as he faces the toughest moment of his career in pushing this team over the top.

“You win or you learn,’’ he keeps telling his players of this playoff process

Losing is more educational than winning in sports. They all know this, of course. Look at their journeys. Carter Verhaeghe was not playing at minor-league Syracuse, a few years into a blah career, when he went to his coach and said, “Put me in and we’ll start winning.” Syracuse started winning. Verhaeghe still holds the franchise’s point record.

Gustav Forsling was traded by a couple of teams, then cut by Carolina before he became one of the league’s top defenseman. “I never lost confidence in myself,’’ he said, even as everyone deciding on his career did.

Evan Rodrigues, Ryan Lomberg and Sergei Bobrovsky weren’t drafted. Think of Bobrovsky’s path for a moment. He was from Siberia and came to a new country to a Philadelphia team where he was slotted to be the third or fourth goalie and built a career from there.

Even then, he was benched two years ago in the playoffs for rookie Spencer Knight and didn’t start in the last playoffs over career minor leaguer Alex Lyon. The whispers were his contract would be bought out and he would finish his career in Russia.

Then he led that run to the Stanley Cup last year and was a favorite for the Conn Smythe award as the NHL’s most valuable player in the playoffs until these past two games. Now the doubters are there again. The whispers are there for all of them, right from the top with the question about Aleksander Barkov’s two meh games against the King of the North, Connor McDavid, about if he’s tough enough for this moment.


To win on the big stage, you have to handle the public’s short-term judgment and, more importantly, the private soul-searching. Anyone can go to a bookstore and see shelves of books on success. But its traveling companion, failure?

Nikola Mikkola, 28, and Kevin Stenlund, 27, played years of hockey but never found an every-game home until this first season with the Panthers. Mikkola never played more than the 54 games with St. Louis two years ago. Stenlund started last years with the Manitoba Moose and his career-high in games until this season with the Panthers was the 59 he played with the Cleveland Monsters.

When you listen to them, it’s not the fear of failure that’s clouded the Panthers the last couple games. It’s the specter of success. It’s the idea that everything they’ve “worked for all our lives,’’ as teammate Matthew Tkachuk put it, sits in the arena waiting to go home with them.

The Stanley Cup is theirs with a win again Friday night in Game 6.

“That’s the first opportunity we’ve had as a franchise, really, to feel the excitement of (winning the Cup),’’ Maurice said after the Game 4 loss to Edmonton. “We’ll learn how to channel it.”

Win or learn. That’s the lesson of the playoffs, the one all these players have had getting here. Failure, on this doorstep, seems the easier thing to handle. I once asked Lomberg what he had to overcome, and he laid it out perfectly as an undrafted player.

“The big thing was to be ready for my chance,’’ he said. “I was working the whole time to be ready. There’s so many people in front of you as an undrafted player, if you’re not ready, they go right on to the next guy. You’ve got to show you belong in that opportunity. I was ready.”

Now’s a different opportunity to be ready on the biggest stage. They’ve all failed to get here in more crushing ways than the past two games. But it’ll take the lessons of those two games, plus everything that got them here, to meet the biggest challenge of their now successful careers.

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