It has been quite a long time since the Florida Panthers enjoyed any type of success – in fact the team has only earned three playoff berths in their 18 year history, the last of which came in 2000. The days of fans throwing rats on the ice to celebrate hat tricks or victories seemed dead, while hockey in south Florida quickly began to dwindle but thanks to an offseason where the Panthers dipped into their wallet, it appears as though the franchise is ready to make a resurgence.
Last night’s thrilling 3-2 overtime win against the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes gave Florida 46 points this season, in 33 games. Florida finished last season with 72 points, so the Panthers are more than half way there but not many have seemed to notice the sudden change that is taking place in the greater Miami area.
The win last night at home was in front of 15,289 fans, a number the Panthers have rarely seen in the past decade. That’s what happens when a team spends money in the summer but it’s not like the Panthers had much of a choice since they were under the $48.3 million minimum team salary which is part of the “Lower Limit of Payroll Range” section of the salary cap. The Panthers could have gone out and just spent the money all willy-nilly by throwing a bunch of money at a superstar but instead they focused on building a team and acquiring the right pieces to fit the puzzle.
Perhaps the biggest addition was right-winger Kris Versteeg, who was fresh off his role as a rental for the Philadelphia Flyers. Versteeg has adapted well to his roll with the Panthers, one that has him quickly becoming a fan favorite. In 32 games this season, Versteeg has 16 goals and 18 assists. The other big reasons both come on the defensive side of the puck – Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell. The two players have added a nice mixture of size and speed to the blue line – which is just what Florida needed – in addition to the leadership they bring to the club. It’s only their first year and already both are alternate captains, the Panthers don’t have a captain at this point in the season.
So add offense? Check. Bolster up the defense? Check. All that was left was goaltending and since Tomas Vokoun up-and-left for Washington, the Panthers went out and got a seasoned – yet streaky – goaltender in Jose Theodore but he has been anything but streaky. He has started 24 games already, with a record of 13-6-4, save percentage of .923 and a 2.32 goals-against-average. Plus they have a solid back up in Scott Clemmensen to help lighten the load.
The Panthers have earned their eight point lead in the Southeast Division despite battling a number of injuries, mostly on the offensive side of the puck. Left-winger Scottie Upshall and center Marcel Goc are both on the injured reserve and while neither is a points machine, Upshall adds plenty of speed and Goc is a defensive-minded forward, who is known for his faceoff skills.
Even though it’s still early in the season, the Panthers seem as though they might be poised for their first playoff berth in well over a decade – as long as they don’t burn out. There is no denying at the moment, that the rat is back, as was eminent by the few scattered on the ice after last night. We might just start seeing more and more of those rubbery creatures as the year continues. And we all know what happened when the rats were a fixture – the Panthers earned their only Stanley Cup playoff appearance in history.
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