Panthers believe series loss to Lightning sign of better times ahead

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Aleksander Barkov‘s disappointment was obvious. So was his optimism.

It was a striking contrast of emotions the Florida Panthers captain felt and talked about following a season-ending 4-0 loss in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup First Round at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.

The contrast told the story of the Panthers season. It might have also foreshadowed their future.

“This year, I felt we played different,” Barkov said. “Different year. It feels like a new start for me and everyone in this organization. That’s how we felt, that’s how we played. We played like a fresh team, fresh organization, different hockey, and we had a lot of fun. It [stinks] that it ends.”

Florida left the hub city of Toronto last year after losing in four games to the New York Islanders in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. It was a disappointing ending because the Panthers felt they barely put up a fight and got muscled right out of the postseason on Aug. 7.

They left Amalie Arena on Wednesday after losing in six games to the Lightning in the best-of-7 first round. It was tough because they felt they could have done more, that they played well enough and fought hard enough to win in six instead of losing in six.

That’s how far the Panthers have come in less than 11 months.

“It’s never good ending, but this is disappointing to a different level,” Florida coach Joel Quenneville said. “The guys laid it out there. We had a chance.”

What comes next will be interesting, and potentially franchise-defining.

A strong regular season, finishing second in the Discover Central Division and fourth in the NHL standings, will raise expectations in Florida to put the Panthers on a path to sustained success the likes of which they have never had in their 27 seasons.

They still haven’t won a playoff round since 1996, but as it stands now, a first-round exit next season will be both disappointing and unacceptable. There won’t be that tinge of optimism that comes along with it.

Winning in the playoffs next season will be the expectation.

“Organizationwise it is good to see the fans, get back into the winning culture,” forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want. Playoffs matters and that’s when you want to win. But next year we’ll come back with a better attitude and we can be a great team.”

Next season will also help determine if the series against the Lightning will eventually be viewed as the kind of learning experience all future championship teams must go through.

That’s what the Panthers envision, at least.

“They’re the team that knows how to win these games and they showed us,” Barkov said. “Game 1, I thought we played an unreal game, they won the game [5-4]. Game 2, same thing, we played really well, we just couldn’t score and they win [3-1]. That’s why you learn from them. They know how to win, and we have to find a way to do those things too, those winning things every time you step on the ice.”

Quenneville has been through this as a coach before, most recently with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009. They lost, in the Western Conference Final, to the Detroit Red Wings, who were the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The feeling the Blackhawks had at the end of that series was similar to what the Panthers were feeling after Game 6, a mixture of disappointment because they lost and optimism because their future seemed so bright.

The Blackhawks grew from it and won the Stanley Cup the following season, the first of three championships in six seasons.

The Panthers now have their fuel to grow, a surprisingly strong regular season that preceded a loss to the defending champions that should serve them well down the road.

“We go home in the summer here and you look at it, there’s a lot of positives, but you’re always looking to get better,” Quenneville said. “We can’t be satisfied with the improvement we had this year, which was significant. Let’s keep thinking that that’s the rate we want to get better at.”

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