CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Keith Yandle had been counting down the days.
With recent launch of Phase 2 of the NHL’s return to play plan, Yandle was one of several members of the Panthers that made their long-awaited return to the Panthers IceDen last week to begin voluntary workouts in preparation for the league’s upcoming 24-team tournament slated for later this summer.
“It kind of reminds me of the first day of school feeling where you’re giddy and ready to see your friends and feel excited to play with everyone,” Yandle said prior to his first day back. “I think, for me, I’m over-the-moon excited and excited to have an opportunity to play. And, yeah, I can’t wait to get the skates on.”
For the Panthers, this return marked the first time that players had taken the ice together since their 2-1 win in St. Louis on March 9. Three days later, the NHL paused its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Once we get going with the team, it’s going to be like we never left,” Yandle said.
As part of Phase 2, up to six players can be at the Panthers IceDen working either on or off the ice at any given time. With health and safety being of the utmost importance, the entire facility has been sanitized and updated to limit the amount of contact that players with teammates, staff, and their surroundings.
Per the NHL’s protocol, players will be tested regularly for COVID-19 throughout the coming months.
“I’m not the type of person who thinks things too much about these things,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “I’m just going with the flow and I understand the situation that this is how it needs to be done and this is how it needs to go. I’m okay with it. I’ll do whatever I’m told to do. Obviously, it helps a lot to see our guys from the team, our players, equipment managers, trainers, everybody. It’s so much fun after the three-month lockdown.”
Upon entering the facility, players are required to wear masks and have their temperatures checked.
“It’s definitely different just seeing all the arrows on the ground, what’s blocked off, one-way in. And you’re testing as soon as you get in the rink,” Panthers forward Noel Acciari said. “It’s definitely a different feeling. But once you jump on that ice, it’s just a great feeling to get back out there, and in the weight room, seeing some of the guys.”
As players continue make their way back to South Florida, this will be the daily routine until, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Phase 3 of the NHL’s return to play plan opens up with training camps on July 10. Once that milestone is reached, then the NHL and NHLPA can begin setting dates for the postseason.
Wrapping up the regular season at 35-26-8, Florida will enter the 24-team tournament (which will be played at two hub cities without fans) as the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. In a rematch from the 2016 playoffs, they will face the seventh-seeded New York Islanders in a best-of-five Qualifying Round.
“Yeah, it was actually cool whenever they said we were going to play against the Islanders again,” Barkov said of the matchup. “Now, we get another chance. Obviously, back then I remember we were kind of young team and had a really good chance to beat them… Now, we’ve got a new chance.”
But with a long road still ahead of them until the postseason begins, the Panthers plan to use the time leading up to Phase 3 as an opportunity to get their legs back under them. After all, it’s been more than three months since they’ve skated, which equates to almost a full offseason in between taking the ice.
The journey to the postseason is a marathon, not a sprint. This is only the beginning.
“I think we have to be smart about it,” Acciari said. “You don’t want to go all out right off the bat. Again, you haven’t skated in three months. You want to ease your way back in. Seven weeks is a long time, but I think right now, if that’s what it stays at, it’s a good amount of time to get your legs back under you. And then once camp starts up again, get the systems back to where you left it.”