The Year Of The Cat?

As many of you already know, I developed a special affinity for South Florida sports teams as a result of the passion of someone who greatly influenced my life.  This person’s fandom didn’t quite extend to hockey, but my passion for the sport had begun long before this, so it was only natural that I at least to think positively about the Florida Panthers.  My influencer tended to be more limited in how and where they spread their enthusiasm, and let’s just say at the time the Panthers were more in the same league as the Marlins–medicore at best, and a post-season disappointment.  They didn’t make it into the final 16 during the bubble playoffs of summer 2020, and they were enroute to another first round ouster during the shortened season of 2020-21.  By that point, we had parted company, but I had become invested enough in their quixotic quest to stick around.

Well, I’m not one who believes anything I do can have a material impact on a team’s fortune but it is a happy coincidence that from that point on, the Panthers have been on one heck of a run.  As YARDBARKER’s Adam Gertz chronicled over the weekend:

The Florida Panthers are going back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row and the third time in franchise history thanks to their 2-1 Game 6 win over the New York Rangers on Saturday night. 

The Panthers have established themselves as the new class of the Eastern Conference with a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance. This year’s team looks even better than the one that made it a year ago and has a real chance to bring the Stanley Cup to south Florida for the first time ever. 

There is just no clear weakness anywhere on this team.

Their forecheck is relentless and caused havoc for the Rangers all series. Their scoring depth is outstanding, as evidenced by the fact they won Games 5 and 6 of the series while getting almost no production from Aleksander Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinahrt, their three biggest stars. They are exceptional defensively and also have a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky making big saves in goal. 

It has been an incredible three-year run for this team, one that has included a Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22, a Stanley Cup Final in 2022-23 and another Stanley Cup Final now in 2023-24.

And yes, they did to an extent still break my heart, more definitively the hearts of less conflicted Rangers fans in the process.  The NEW YORK DAILY NEWS’ Antwan Staley was tasked with the unfortunate task of reporting on how they yet again came up short to his readers in the wake of the above results:

The Blueshirts’ dreams of a fifth Stanley Cup officially died at Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday night. The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy to gain home ice throughout the postseason, just like in 1994. But unlike 1994, when they trailed the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final, the Rangers couldn’t find the magic to come back from a 3-2 deficit. The Rangers lost three consecutive games to lose the series. It was their longest losing streak since January.

But this Panthers run looks as special at the ’94 Rangers’, and is already producing emotionally invigorating outcomes.  This team finally won the championship of the state of Florida, conquering the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, an especially sweet outcome considering it was Tampa that eliminated them in both ’21 and in that best-in-league ’22 season.  They at last avenged a 4-1 loss to the Rangers in the first round of the 1997 playoffs that came on the heels of that surprising Finals appearance in just their third season of existence and their first-ever post-season run.

And now, they carry the mantle of America’s team.  And if the Panthers do prevail, they will arguably break the hearts of an entire nation, as the CANADIAN PRESS noted in its recap of what went down last night in Alberta:

The Edmonton Oilers are headed to their eighth Stanley Cup final in franchise history.

Connor McDavid had a goal and an assist as the Oilers punched their ticket to the championship series with a somewhat shaky 2-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Sunday, winning the best-of-seven Western Conference final in six games.  Zach Hyman also scored and Evan Bouchard had a pair of assists for the Oilers, who will face the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup series — marking Edmonton’s first appearance in a Cup final since 2006, when it fell in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Moreover, they are only the sixth Canadian franchise to even qualify for the Finals since the last time the country that invented the sport actually took the Stanley Cup home with them, when the Montreal Canadiens denied Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings a championship in 1993.  And the Canadiens’ lone attempt at recapturing it was arguably tainted, as it came in that aforementioned shortened 2020-21 season where due to COVID restrictions the league’s seven Canadian franchises were realigned into a separate division and played exclusively before empty seats until that final round, effectively giving the country a 50-50 chance at making it into the finals at all.

So yes, there’s a lot of nervous energy and anticipation north of the border.  They do have a resillient and talented team.  Edmonton had only 10 shots on goal last night en route to eliminating the Stars, but converted on 20 per cent of them.  And Oiler netminder Stuart Skinner is arguably on as good of a run as Bobrovsky.

Last year, the Panthers’ run to the Finals was unexpected, having won the Eastern Conference despite a 8-out-of-8 seeding.  But it was simultaneous to a similar feat being pulled off by the NBA Heat.  And in any head-to-head battle for the emotions of South Florida sports fans, the Heat will always win that battle.  I learned that first hand.

But this year’s Heat are long gone from the post-season.  The Marlins continue to be an embarassment.  The Dolphins are still more than a month away from training camp, and even Inter Miami has cooled off from their hot MLS start, with Lionel Messi taking a few deserved games off to keep his soon-to-be 37-year-old legs healthy for the more significant matches down the road.

The Panthers now have the South Florida sports scene all to themselves.  And we ‘Mericans would like to extend our grip on the Stanley Cup.  It’s doubtful that the sport’s Northeast U.S. corridor base will be paying as much attention to these Finals as will their Northern neighbors.

So I’ll invite my influencer to at least consider joining the bandwagon.  The quest starts Saturday night in Sunrise, and I know you know the directions.

Courage…

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