SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The last few days have been filled with awkward moments for Florida Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe.
First, there was the unfortunate scene where Gerard Gallant loaded his luggage into a taxi after getting fired as Florida’s coach last week. Another moment of weirdness came Wednesday, when Rowe settled into Gallant’s former office for the first time. And on Thursday night, Rowe made his home debut behind the bench — drawing boos from some in the crowd.
It is not a happy time in Pantherland right now.
Florida’s 5-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night was the team’s fourth straight defeat, sixth in its last seven games and dropped the team to 12-12-4 through 28 games. That puts the Panthers on pace for 82 points, and it’s going to take a lot more than that to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs; 93 was the magic number in the East last season, 98 was what it took to get the No. 8 seed two seasons ago.
Gallant got Florida to the playoffs last year. Rowe is going to need Florida to pick up the pace if a postseason return is in the cards.
“We took a chance with this,” said Rowe, the Panthers’ general manager who never was an NHL head coach until the move to fire Gallant. “But we just felt a change was needed, a little different direction, a little different voice, work on a few things when it comes to the details of the game. I’ve been fired before, too. It’s not a lot of fun.”
If there’s a silver lining for Florida right now, it’s this: A year ago, the Panthers were basically in this same spot. After 28 games last season, they were 13-11-4; that’s just two points more ahead of where this team is. And that club ended up winning 47 games, getting 103 points and a division title.
But while that team was trending in the right direction, this one isn’t. At least, not yet.
“We’ve talked a little bit about that,” Rowe said. “I think it gives our guys a real good thing to shoot for. We’ve got a long way to go here in the season. The biggest thing as a coaching staff, we’ve got to make sure the emotions are even-keeled, not getting too high when we do well, not getting too low when we hit a bump.”
The bumps have far outnumbered the good times for Florida this season.
A team that thought of itself as a Stanley Cup contender coming into the season has been dealt one challenge after another. Forward Jonathan Huberdeau — who excelled on a line with Jaromir Jagr last season — is still weeks away from his season debut because of an Achilles issue. Jussi Jokinen missed time with an injury and has only two goals so far. Nick Bjugstad missed the first quarter of the season with a broken wrist and still hasn’t scored.
Jagr got his sixth goal of the season in Thursday’s loss, but even he hasn’t been the same as he was a year ago.
“We’re kind of just waiting for those ugly goals,” forward Reilly Smith said. “You keep putting pucks on net, they’ll come.”
Even the coaching change didn’t exactly come at a good time, with Florida one game into a six-game road trip. The Panthers got five points out of the remainder of those games, falling twice in overtime — then got behind 3-0 in the first eight minutes of Rowe’s home debut, on the way to the team’s worst loss on home ice so far this season.
Rowe still sees reason for hope.
“It’s been a little odd,” Rowe said. “Same parking spot, just different office space. It was surreal, I guess. Put everything else aside — I’m a coach, I’ve been a coach for the last 15 years and it really wasn’t the plan to come in here and end up coaching. It turned out that way and I’m going to embrace it.”
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