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Joel Quenneville has turned Panthers into a contender in 2nd year at the helm

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Joel Quenneville loves horse racing. As any good bettor does, he goes through all the past performances for every horse in the field before making his wager.

He’s not an expert.

“Below average,” he said.

Perhaps Quenneville should stick to hockey. The bet he made on the Panthers a couple of years ago seems to be on the cusp of a big-time payoff.

Florida — a franchise that has made missing the playoffs an art form, with no series wins since 1996 — is at the midpoint of this season, Year 2 of the Quenneville era, tied for the most points in the NHL. At 19-5-4, the Panthers are off to the best 28-game start in their history in terms of points and winning percentage.

And for the first time in a quarter-century, the Panthers might be a true contender for the Stanley Cup.

There are plenty of reasons why: Aleksander Barkov is playing like the best in the game, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is back in top form after a down year, and Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar might be the top defenseman duo in the league.

The biggest reason, though, might be Quenneville, the mustachioed guy behind the bench. He preaches simple hockey, tough hockey, team-first hockey. The Panthers are soaking up every word.

“Even if it’s the most complicated play on the ice, he’s OK with it so long as it works,” Ekblad said. “So that’s one of the things I’ve learned. Obviously, there’s a time and place to make a simple play. And there’s a time and place to make the play that’s going to help us win the game.”

The Panthers have trailed at some point in 14 of their 19 victories; they were down 3-1 to Chicago on Monday night before ripping off the game’s final five goals for yet another comeback win. They’re 4-0-0 this season against the Blackhawks, who fired Quenneville — a three-time champion coach there — only 15 games into the 2018-19 season.

Quenneville took some time figuring out what to do next. He saw the young core in Florida, the team that was being run then by his longtime friend Dale Tallon, and decided that would be his next stop. The Panthers have reaped the benefits ever since.

“In Chicago, I was lucky at that time to grab a team that was as talented and deep as they were,” Quenneville said. “This team’s a little different in some ways, but at the same time, the development, where we’re at, it kind of reminds me of those days. And I came here with the thinking that it’d be a fun place to win.”

He won a title in his second year in Chicago. He might have a team good enough to win another title in his second year in Florida.

The Panthers haven’t had anything close to a rough patch yet. They’re 8-0-1 after a loss this season, have scored five or more goals 10 times and given up five or more only twice. And they’re the only team so far with a winning record this season against reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.

“Everyone is having fun on the ice,” Barkov said. “And that’s when everyone starts to notice you. Half of the season done, we’re in a good spot.”

Florida has stars on the ice, without question. But it’s Quenneville who is pushing all the right buttons. He’s cut down on practice time this season because of the compressed schedule and the demands on players’ bodies, choosing to do more work in the video room instead. The result has been fresher legs, and Florida’s 36 third-period goals entering Tuesday was tops in the NHL — a big part of all those comeback wins.

“It’s not lost on me at all,” Panthers general manager and former hockey agent Bill Zito told The Associated Press in an interview last month, when asked about the advantage that comes with having Quenneville as coach. “I lived in Chicago when he came in and made the run and had a number of players play for him. So, that is a luxury for me that does not go unappreciated.”

Quenneville has nothing left to prove. Only one coach in NHL history has won more games, only seven have won more Stanley Cups and most of those were claimed a lifetime ago. He could be spending more time watching horses, playing golf and tennis, skiing, enjoying life with his family.

Instead, the 62-year-old is still working, with no plans to stop soon. That silver chalice, the one Florida has always chased and the one Quenneville has already hoisted three times, is still very much on his mind.

“When you win a Cup, you can’t wait to do it again. And that’s the thing,” Quenneville said. “It’s everything. That’s why we do it. The process of trying to win the Cup is the best part of winning a Cup. And that’s what you look forward to.”

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