FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Paul Maurice started musing, partly to himself. 

“See, that’s an interesting …” 

The coach turned then, to an observer, sitting a few rows back in a room in Baptist Health IcePlex, the Florida Panthers’ new practice facility. 

“You got your phone with you?” Maurice asked Adelyn Biedenbach, the team’s vice president of communications. “Can you send me a text? ‘Laughter.’”

He turned back, the single-word reminder secured in his phone. 

“There you go. That’s what’s missing,” Maurice said. “They’ve been working for a long time and nobody’s made them laugh.”

When the Panthers went on their run last season, from nearly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, clinching their spot after Game 81 of the season, all the way to Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, before bowing to the Vegas Golden Knights, the team was marked by its can’t-lose attitude, its looseness and lack of pressure, by its laughter on the bench and the exhortations of its coach to enjoy the ride. 

That was because, of course, they were playing with house money. 

That’s not the case this season. 

Florida came into 2023-24 as a Stanley Cup Finalist, albeit one that had its share of doubters, with defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour each having offseason shoulder surgery and there being questions about whether the run was a fluke. The Panthers have proven all those doubters foolhardy, spending much of the season vying to win the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the NHL’s best regular-season record for the second time in three years. 

“I think we’re definitely one of the better teams throughout the League and we’ve shown it throughout the whole season, but we still have that underdog kind of, no, we’re not getting all the credit we think that we deserve so far this year,” forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “I guess, rightly so. We haven’t really proven anything. It’s just the regular season. So we do feel like we’ve played up to our standard for most of the season, but we feel like we can take another step.”

Which is why the Panthers will go into the playoffs driven, with a sense of unfinished business, a sense of purpose and a sense that the Cup could be theirs when the calendar hits June. The Panthers, who won the Atlantic Division in the final regular-season game, start that campaign on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the the Eastern Conference First Round (12:30 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS) with that awful memory still lingering. 

It might sting most for Tkachuk, who fractured his sternum during the Cup Final and missed Game 5.

“It’s brutal. It’s terrible. It still stings,” Tkachuk said, of losing the Final. “But we’re going to get another kick at it here soon.”

Maurice remembers the bitterness finally dissipating, that taste disappearing finally in August. When the team returned. When the new season dawned. When hope replaced devastation. 

They reconnected, then. They told the stories, then.

“You’re just using the playoff hockey as your training camp video and you start to remember things that you’d forgotten, so many great things,” Maurice said. “It’s emotionally -- I guess they go hand in hand, physically and emotionally grueling, and when you lose you don’t get a refresh from that. You don’t get the euphoria that comes with it, you’re just kind of left with the numbness at first and, certainly, some sadness.”

But by the end of August, by the time that training camp loomed, that was largely gone. He was excited again. They were excited again. They could see the promise unfolding before them, even with the lingering injury impact of the playoffs the previous season.

See if the Panthers can make another Stanley Cup run

“I don’t feel that we had any hangover from the loss,” Maurice said. “We came in with some challenges and met those right away, and training camp was hard and they pushed hard and I wasn’t in the room barking at them to play harder early in the year. I didn’t have to. They played hard.” 

They found their stride, lost it a bit near the end of the season, having a 2-7-1 stretch from March 14-April 2 that nearly cost them the Atlantic Division title. That, plus what happened last season, when the team was forged by the fire of the playoffs, gives them belief now. 

“I think that experience is a huge thing and going through, for most guys, their first really long run last season it’s helped so much going into this season,” Tkachuk said. “Like you can’t even put into words what it’s meant and just how calm we are. Even when we’re getting dominated in games for five or 10 minutes, there’s not a worry in the world for us.”

But there is hope. Hope and pressure. 

“We’re a hungry team,” forward Sam Bennett said. “We had a taste of it. We were right there and came up a little short. We want it badly. I think every guy in this locker room is dying for that chance to win. We’re definitely a group that’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Maurice acknowledged that the Panthers aren’t the top team in the NHL, but also pointed out that there isn’t one best team, especially not in the Eastern Conference. There’s no runaway favorite. But there are 10 teams, maybe more, who have a legitimate shot. 

“So you do your couple laps of the NHL and you look around and go, ‘OK, we’re close,’” Maurice said. “We may not be the best team, the most talented team, but we’ve got assets that can be the best. Then they’re wired …”

He dropped his voice, the hint of a whisper despite the room being nearly empty. 

“That’s why it’s a little edgy around here right now,” he said, back in late March. “Which is kind of a good thing. I haven’t tried to quiet the edge. I haven’t brought too much perspective in the room. I’ll start doing that after tomorrow’s game.” 

The Panthers are seeking the right balance, to marry their hunger, their desire to finish what they nearly completed last season with the sense of fun that they believe is necessary. They don’t want a tight team, they don’t want clenched teeth. 

That’s not when they are at their best. It’s not how they did it last time. 

So how does Maurice do that? Is there a book of dad jokes stashed somewhere under the bench?

“I’m a ridiculously funny man,” Maurice deadpanned. 

The theory goes as far back as Peter Karmanos Jr., the former owner of the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, under whom Maurice coached. He used to tell Maurice that he never saw him smile, that he never saw him enjoying himself on camera. 

“Are you having any fun at all?” Karmanos would say to Maurice. 

“Can’t smile, it’s serious,” Maurice said, his voice deepening. “And then I started laughing a little bit more, right? And then I said, ‘We tell these kids to have fun, have fun,’ like maybe it’s really important that the kids see you have fun, that you should laugh during practice, that you should laugh during a game.

“I thought about that for a long time and then I got older and I don’t [get hung up] as much sometimes about the result. I mean, I’d ask you not to print that, but it’s kind of true. That team last year, I laughed on the bench with. They were funny. And it was also really good medicine at times when things didn’t go our way.”

There were the chirps from Tkachuk. The quips of Montour. There was the dry humor of the Staal brothers, Eric and Marc. There were the many nicknames of Nick Cousins. There was Radko Gudas’ beard.

“It’s one of the components of mental toughness, humor,” Maurice said. “Or resilience. We talk about that.”

This team wants so badly to win the Stanley Cup. It’s ready. 

But is it a team that can win?

“Yeah,” Maurice said. “But it’s not one that should. So it’s not anointed. Maybe ordained is a better word. We haven’t done enough -- and this is not a negative -- where you would say, if you just play your game you’re going to win. And maybe this year that’s true of everybody. But I would say it’s more of, if we play our game, we’ve got a chance.

“We’re good enough. We’re good enough that we should be able to have some fun with it.”

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