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PANTHERS GET GOING: Quick Start Crucial for Return to Playoffs

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Thursday was a relaxing day around the Panthers training facility. As players skated around running drills, general manager Dale Tallon cracked jokes.

Coach Kevin Dineen, wearing jeans and deck shoes, casually sipped on a cup of coffee as he made small talk.

These days of leisure are almost over for the Panthers. Florida has just a handful of practices between the start of training camp until its season opener Jan. 19. The Panthers are expected to play eight games within the first two weeks.

"We've been together as a staff, but when you see all your players here, you feel complete,'' said Dineen, whose team plans to have its first practice either Sunday or Monday.

"The focus is on the games. Training camp is important, but it's to build up to what looks like a very busy first week for us. It looks like the first week or two will be busy and that's how it's going to be all season. We'll just have to build in and make some decisions on the fly.''

When the 2013 season starts, it will be a mad dash to the finish from Day 1. Like the other 29 teams in the league, the Panthers only have 48 games to prove themselves.

Florida was one of 16 to make it to the postseason last year as it earned 59 points in the first 48 games.

"We need a good start with only 48 games,'' Tallon said. "We'll be prepared to go.''

Last year, it took 92 points to make the Eastern Conference playoffs -- which works out to 54 points in a 48-game season.

Florida had the equivalent of 55 points last year.

"You have to work hard before camp because things are going to come quick,'' Brian Campbell said. "A good start is going to be real important because you are starting the season almost midway through a season.

"Things change quick. You want to get in front early so you're not playing playoff hockey with 20 games left. It's going to be a quick, fun ride.''

Tallon and Dineen were allowed to watch their first on-ice workout since the lockout began in September on Thursday as the Panthers returned to the Saveology.com Iceplex.

Although the players wore their Panthers practice jerseys and used their locker room at the facility, Dineen and his coaches weren't allowed to run practice. Once the NHL players' association officially ratifies the new collective bargaining agreement on Saturday, it's game on.

"You don't realize how much you miss it until you really see them out there,'' Tallon said. "It's nice to see everyone out there smiling and happy to be here. Lets move on. This is the greatest game in the world so lets enjoy it.''