Turns Out These Cats Needed Four Lives

The Florida Panthers were sixty minutes away from forever becoming what ESPN.com’s Greg Wyshynski reminded last night what they had been for most of their existence:

(A) punch line… mocked for meager attendance…wallowing in mediocrity, on and off the ice, as the team went 25 years between playoff series victories.

They were one more Stanley Cup Final home loss, a distinct possibility since they already had one under their belt, from adding these ignominious line items to their CV:

(T)here could have been more embarrassment. Like, the most embarrassment. Florida nearly fumbled the bag against Edmonton, becoming just the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 Stanley Cup Final series lead to force a Game 7. They could have been the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI or Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters or the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, the only team in NHL history to lose the Stanley Cup Final after winning the first three games.

But instead, in the ultimate test of will and resolve, a winner-take-all Game Seven for a league title, it was up to the likes of CBS South Florida to, at long last, report the result that South Floridian hockey fans, especially the 15,000 or so that actually have been for the last three decades, longed to see:

The Florida Panthers made history Monday night in front of more than 19,000 fans at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Florida, beating the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 to win their first Stanley Cup.

As expected, Game 7 was a hard-fought contest with both teams going toe to toe throughout the game.

Panthers’ Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe scored goals, Sergei Bobrovsky made 23 saves.

Panthers fans had to wait three long decades to reach this moment. It took 30 seasons, 457 different players, 18 different coaches, about two decades of irrelevance wedged in there along the way, rumors of contraction, rumors of relocation, and who knows how many bad nights to get to this moment.

The Cats and their fans suffered in this series, but in the end, they won the Cup through sheer effort in their building.

When you exist in an area as entertaining and front-running as South Florida, anything less than world-class status is bound to be considered irrelevant.  Wyshynski further rattled off some of the franchise’s more embarassing factoids:

“In 2004, while I was at college in Orlando, I met a guy who was a Lightning fan while I was watching the finals at a bar,” Panthers fan David Roth said. “I told him I was a Panthers fan, and he looked at me with a look of absolute bewilderment and just said, ‘Why?’ As if it were so foreign a concept to be a fan of a team in Florida other than the Lightning.”

In 2006, the Panthers were averaging over 4,100 free tickets handed out for each home game. In 2008, the team introduced the “First Timer” program, in which anyone with a valid Florida driver’s license could get two free tickets to a game.

In 2010, after LeBron James made his decision to take his talents to South Beach, the Panthers responded by offering season tickets in the upper deck for $6 per game, ostensibly in honor of his new uniform number with the Heat. Even that price point didn’t generate enough sales — the team announced that summer that it was going to tarp off 2,000 upper deck seats for most home games.

“When you go 25 years between playoff series wins, and then only make the playoffs a couple of times during that span, you lose a couple of generations of fans,” Florida CEO Matthew Caldwell said.

But in the wake of last summer’s shocking run to the Finals from a number eight conference position (simultaneous to a similar run by the still more popular Heat a few miles south in the actual South Beach, as opposed to the nondescript Broward County arena the Panthers call home), this Panthers team was resillient, determined, and scrappy.  A rebuilding orchestrated by leaders like Bill Zito, resuced from the NHL purgatory of Columbus, Ohio in 2021 two years after Bobrovsky had been lured by the siren’s song of free agency dollars, and amplified when, in the wake of the allegations that forced coach Joel Quenneville to resign days into Zito’s first season, they found a coach with a similar-length history of equally futile results.  Again per Wyshinski:

ENTER PAUL MAURICE.

He had resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets in December 2021, suggesting the team needed a different voice. He wasn’t sure if he’d get another head-coaching job and was content with that.

Maurice was in the midst of “four phenomenal days of fishing” when Zito called him. They started talking hockey, and immediately connected.

“I was good, right? I had given all that I thought I had to give, certainly been fortunate in the game and received far more than I gave,” Maurice said. “But there’s just these strange little things that meant Florida was right, that it was where I was supposed to be next.”

Maurice brought a redoubled resolve to this year’s team, and even as the hockey world was agog with anticipation that Canada would finally, after more than 30 years without one, finally see the Cup return north of the border, these Panthers wouldn’t choke on the hairball that the talented Oilers became, particularly in Games Four, Five and Six where they outscored their opponents 18-5 and were being led by the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Connor McDavid in the process.

Maurice said that it was about the players coming to camp with an all-business attitude. It was no longer about hoping to make a Stanley Cup Final — it was expected to be there again, and just about figuring out the best path to get there.

It was a longer and more arduous path that it first appeared to be earlier this month, when the Panthers and Bobrovsky were unstoppable in roaring out to a 3-0 series lead.  They were all but making plans for the parade and yes, Dade County and those disappointed elitists still smarting from the Heat’s first-round ouster this year were on board.

Well, that parade is going to happen after all.  After a phenomenal defensive effort, underscored by a stretch where Bobrovsky had to fend off a furious flurry of Oilers’ shots late in the third period, for a spell without a goalie stick.  And, apropos to their style, they effectively played keepaway with the puck as the final seconds ticked off, wedging it into the corner with their physical shield and denying Edmonton even a chance for an equalizer.

As CBS Sports giddily summised:

They slammed the door, one last time. And the Cup was their reward.

“This is the best moment of my life so far,” veteran Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “Nothing tops it.”

Savor it, Cats.  You’ve still got five more lives to access while you’re partying.

Courage…

 

 

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