The public hallmark of Andrew Brunette’s coaching style with the Florida Panthers is compass-point directness. He’s always sounds on target. Asked about early problems in the Washington playoff series, he said flatly, “We’re playing nervous.”
Asked how he wanted his team to play trailing early that series, he said, “Hopefully mad.”
“Absolutely,’’ he admitted how frustration weighed on his players this Tampa Bay series due to their staggering power-play failure.
“Angry, hungry and not to be denied,” he said Saturday in underlining the mindset for Sunday’s Game 3, a T-shirt-worthy phrase close to Hamilton’s chorus line of, “Young, scrappy and hungry.”
If you, like me, have become a fan of Brunette’s brand of honesty, as well as the pinball Panthers offense in the regular season, it’s time to be just as direct about the possible stakes as they try to climb back into the series Sunday in Tampa.
Brunette is coaching for his job.
There’s no other way to look at how his “interim coach” tag hasn’t been lifted by now. It was Oct. 29 when Joel Quenneville was forced to resign under the gloomiest of situations, the covering up of a sexual-assault scandal a decade earlier in Chicago that took in the Panthers as collateral damage.
That makes Brunette the longest interim coach in the history of sports. Eighty-four games. Nearly seven months. He helped the Panthers to the best record in the regular season and won their first playoff series win in 26 years. Doesn’t that count for something — maybe everything?
That question lands on General Manager Bill Zito’s desk. What’s his bar for this season? What’s he see in his coach behind the scenes? What if, too, the Panthers flame out of this Tampa series after losing the first two games in Sunrise?
The Panthers had an eye-popping regular season in scoring the most NHL goals in more than three decades … and finished off Washington in six games … and are 0 for 25 on power play in the playoffs … and lost on a fundamental defensive boner by McKenzie Weegar’s to cost Thursday’s Game 2 with 3.8 seconds left.
The Panthers spend Saturday mixing up their power play, changing some lines, “just moving things around and seeing if we can find something,’’ Brunette said.
That’s part of the alchemy of coaching. But at some point, you don’t fool or out-strategize top teams. You have to outplay them. The Panthers and Lightning have played more than any two teams in hockey over the past two years between the pandemic’s schedule and consecutive post-season series. So there’s not a lot of fooling left.
And yet: As the Panthers’ entertaining style played out this year, there was the nagging question inside the hockey world of how that style fit into the playoffs. Could they win a close and close-to-the-vest affair like Game 2? Were they being prepped properly?
Here’s the other issue to ponder: Barry Trotz, is out there. He’s a Stanley Cup winner known for defensive systems and has the third-most wins in NHL history right behind Quenneville. Maybe half the league’s coaches rolled their eyes when the New York Islanders fired him. That’s because he’ll get to pick his job, the way it appears.
No sport discards coaches like hockey. There were seven interim coaches in the NHL this season. Two of them, Brunette and Edmonton’s Jay Woodcroft, are among the eight teams alive in the playoffs. Has an interim coach ever made the NFL or baseball playoffs – much less gone this deep into them?
There’s an easy solution to this looming question: The Panthers play like they have most of this year, rally against Tampa Bay — and keep going until there’s talk of Brunette being the first interim coach in line for a championship.
That would be the happy ending for everyone. The other ending lands on Zito’s desk — and with an apparent decision to make that he hasn’t yet.