Of the hockey teams that emerged in the American South in the 1990s, few have been more entertaining than the team from Miami, the Florida Panthers. Originating in 1993, the Panthers quickly rose up the ranks of NHL squads to make a daring and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. While they lost that series and haven’t been very successful ever since, the Panthers have proudly introduced South Florida to ice hockey and put on a delightful show every time they get on the ice!
The Florida Panthers were created by businessman Wayne Huizenga, who also had stakes in the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins baseball team. However, watching the growth of ice hockey throughout America, he chose to try his hand at this game that had captured sports fans’ hearts. While his business team knew little about hockey, they did assemble a management team of experienced NHL veterans capable of finding success.
Equipped with the 1993 NHL expansion draft, the Panthers acquired Scott Mellanby and John Vanbiesbrouck, two early stars at the club. Wisely selected rookie Rob Niedermayer would also become a key player in Florida. While the team didn’t reach the playoffs in their inaugural year, they performed exceptionally well for an expansion franchise, finishing with a record near .500.
But 1996 would be the club’s coming out party. Finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers earned a first trip to the NHL Playoffs, where they played incredibly. Along a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals, they beat top seeded teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
During those playoffs, the team developed a strange goal celebration in which rats were tossed onto the ice. Honoring an actual rat-killing by Mellanby, the practice went out of control during the postseason, delaying games for several minutes after each goal that would inspire hundreds of rubber rats being heaped onto the ice!
Surprisingly, the best Panthers’ playoff performers were Dave Lowry, Ray Sheppard, and Stu Barnes, while Vanbiesbrouck remained a force in the goal. Unfortunately, the Stanley Cup dream would not come to fruition, as the Colorado Avalanche swept Florida in the Finals.
The team remained competitive over the next few years, though they would always lose in the first round of the playoffs. There was great hope in the arrival of Pavel Bure in 1999, who would lead the team in scoring for several years. However, as the Panthers relied too heavily on his performances they did not do well collectively.
Following 2000, Florida would enter a period of disappointment for a full decade, failing to reach the playoffs until 2012. That season was bolstered by strong play from Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, and Brian Campbell. Unfortunately, the Panthers would again bow out of the playoffs in the first round following an engaging series with the New Jersey Devils that went all the way to double overtime of game 7.
The current look of the Florida Panthers reveals a team looking to head back to the playoffs. With young rising stars like Nick Bjugstad and veterans like Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes, this team looks destined to return to the NHL Playoffs one day soon!
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