Do you hear it?
For the first time since the 1999-2000 season that sound rustling the trees around South Florida isn't the breeze coming off the ocean. It's the sound of the Florida Panthers' faithful breathing a collective sigh of relief. After a decade of irrelevance, the Florida Panthers are finally back in the NHL playoffs.
Even though the Cats lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals on April 5th, they still qualified for the NHL's second season courtesy of the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres that same evening. With their 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on April 7th, the Panthers clinched the Southeast Division for the first time in franchise history. Although the NHL playoffs are just getting started, one thing is already perfectly clear. This Panthers campaign is already a resounding success.
At the beginning of the season, many weren't sure what to make of Dale Tallon's rebuilding project. On paper, it clearly looked like the best team the Panthers had assembled in years, with the additions of All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell, speedy winger Kris Versteeg and Tampa Bay Lightning playoff hero Sean Bergenheim. However, many pundits weren't sure that new head coach Kevin Dineen would be able to get the team to gel quickly enough and were quick to write off the Panthers to another season as NHL cellar dwellers.
Yet, the Panthers were quick to prove the doubters wrong, as they got off to their best start since 1996 after their first 15 games. Since that torrid start, the Panthers battled through an inconsistent, but exciting season, at one point even putting together a five game winning streak, something the franchise hadn't done since the Jacques Martin era. Players like Bergenheim, Tomas Fleischmann and Jason Garrison have turned in career years for the Panthers, while others, including Campbell and Jose Theodore have rejuvenated their careers playing in the Sunshine State.
Most importantly, they've made hockey relevant again in the South Florida sports landscape. For too long, the Panthers were placed on the backburner and only supported by their die-hard fans. At the same time, it's hard to blame the common sports fan for not supporting a franchise that at times couldn't get out of its own way. Thankfully, those times are now only ugly memories and the Bank Atlantic Center is once again packed with fans ready to find this generation's Bill Lindsay.
It should be noted, however, that just because the season is already a success in the eyes of the Panthers' faithful, it's clear that the team isn't satisfied with just making the playoffs. In order to continue their best season in over a decade, the Panthers will have to knock off their first round opponent, the New Jersey Devils. While many experts aren't giving the Panthers much of a chance, the team seems to be relishing the old ‘nobody believes in us' role.
In a series ripe with interesting storylines, the Panthers will face the same team that swept them in the first round the last time the Panthers made the playoffs way back in 2000. Adding to the intrigue, the Devils are coached by Pete Deboer, the same man that Dale Tallon fired before hiring Kevin Dineen this past offseason. Dineen will have some interesting decisions to make, including whether to start Theodore, who has struggled of late, or Scott Clemmensen, who not only was in his best form of the season during the stretch run, but also has downright owned his former team.
In order to defeat Deboer's Devils, Dineen and Co. will have to find a way to keep Devils' stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise in check, while also finding a way to solve Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur. It seems that this series is destined for a few overtime games and the Panthers will need someone to play the hero role if they plan on moving on into the playoffs. Fortunately, this Panthers squad doesn't lack postseason experience and Tallon acquired many of the new players in the offseason specifically for their playoff prowess. Expect players like Versteeg, Bergenheim and Campbell to come up big for the Cats in this series.
No matter what happens against the Devils, however, Panthers fans can once again hold their heads high. For the first time in a decade, their postseason isn't dependent on a lottery ball. It will finally be decided on the ice. Come next year, the Panthers will raise a Southeast Division Championship banner to the rafters to join the teams' '96 Eastern Conference Championship banner in what is hopefully only a sign of things to come.
Who knows? In a season that saw the return of the rats, maybe the Panthers can channel some of that '96 magic and make a legitimate run. Stranger things have happened.