Paul Maurice's team was spent. And he knew it.
The Florida Panthers had battled their way to the Stanley Cup final through three gruelling, emotionally draining series.
The No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the record-setting Boston Bruins, topped the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, and swept the Carolina Hurricanes with four one-goal victories.
Battered and bruised — the locker room resembled a sick bay — the Panthers had exhausted much of their energy by the time they arrived in Sin City to take on the Vegas Golden Knights. Five games later, Florida was done.
Teams that reach the same point have often failed to recapture the magic and mojo after falling just short of hockey's holy grail.
Not these Panthers.
"There was a disappointment," said Maurice, who's in his second season as head coach. "But it didn't last long because there was nothing left to give. That was it. If you give everything you possibly have, then you can leave it there. We left it there.
"It was a spectacular year. We enjoyed the hell out of it ... once you mentally can leave it, then you can recover."
And recover they have.
The Panthers sit 13-7-2 through 22 games, good for second in the Atlantic Division, third in the Eastern Conference, and eighth in the overall standings.
Florida had to do without minute-crunching defencemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour for the first five weeks of the schedule following off-season shoulder surgeries.
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov and centre Sam Bennett also missed time, while star winger Matthew Tkachuk recovered from a cracked sternum suffered in time for the start of training camp.
"We measure everything ... they worked hard," Maurice said of his group once it reconvened. "They didn't come in, 'Ah, we gotta go through this camp again.'"
Ekland, who picked up his first point of the season in Tuesday's 2-1 shootout loss to Toronto that saw the Panthers finish with 83 shots attempts in the second half of a back-to-back, said the formula after June's heartbreak is simple.
"Coaching," he said. "They do a good job of throwing us right back into the fire."
Maurice, who missed the playoffs with Carolina in 2003 after losing in the final the previous spring, credited Florida's front office for finding help to hold the fort as some of the core worked to get healthy early, but added the concepts that took months to congeal last season are now imprinted on the roster.
"Systematically, we're way better than we were last year at this time," he said. "And then your relationships change a little bit with players. It's easier to connect with a guy.
"When you're talking about where a guy's level needs to get to, he understands what you're talking about."
Ekblad added that Maurice, who arrived in Florida after the Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy in 2021-22 with 122-point season before bowing out in the second round, has also eased off the throttle ever so slightly.
"But at the end of the day, it's the same coaching style," Ekblad said. "It's firm and fair, and exactly what we need on a daily basis.
"He's spot-on every time."
Similar to how Maurice was confident a club that struggled early last season would find its groove.
"We had quite a bit of adversity," he said. "But from Jan. 2 on we were pretty good hockey team."
MCDAVID, OILERS HEATING UP
The Edmonton Oilers were in another tailspin and Connor McDavid was struggling — at least by his lofty standards — a week ago.
Life moves fast.
The Oilers have won three straight, with McDavid putting 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) over that span.
Edmonton (8-12-1) still has a long way to go, but there's hope in the Alberta capital with the team sitting five points out of the second wild-card spot in the scuffling Western Conference playoff race.
Toronto general manager Brad Treliving was already in the market for a defenceman with Timothy Liljegren (ankle) and John Klingberg (hip) out before veteran blueliner Mark Giordano took a shot off his hand Tuesday.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters the 40-year-old is still being evaluated and won't play Thursday.
The NHL all-star weekend set for February in Toronto will expand to a three-day showcase.
Fans can also expect a freshening up of the skills competition after some events fell flat last year in Florida, including the confusing "Tendy Tandem" challenge that paired netminders together.
Steve Mayer, the league's chief content officer and executive producer of all-star festivities, said alterations to the format are coming.
"We've had numerous conversations with the NHLPA, with the players themselves," he said. "We are going to make some changes."
"We heard the comments," Mayer added. "We experienced it ourselves."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press