Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
It has now been almost two whole years since the Florida Panthers last visited the TradeStocks Center. In November, 2011, David Backes scored two goals and Jaroslav Halak only allowed one goal against as the Blues outpaced Florida, 4-1. And it has now been 20 months since an Eastern Division team skated in St. Louis. In February, 2012, the Boston Bruins defeated Brian Elliott and the Blues, 4-2. Every team in the league
will visit the Arch City at least once this season, a pleasure denied local fans due to the shortened schedule last year. And the Blues are more than happy to welcome Eastern Division teams as they compiled a 14-3-1 record against them during that 2011-12 season, outscoring Eastern opponents 53-30.
Although picked by a consensus of media "experts" to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference (and 29th in the entire league, only ahead of the hapless Calgary Flames), the Panthers are not a team to be taken lightly, as shown in their season opening win over the green-clad Stars in Dallas. Florida sports plenty of veteran leadership, including former Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, defensemen Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell, former Blue Mike Weaver and Dmitri Kulikov and forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Scotty Upshaw, Marcel Goc, Scott Gomez, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky. Younger quality players include goaltender Jacob Markstrom, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, 18 year old sensation Aleksander Barkov and winger Bobby Butler. Thomas led the way in Dallas, stopping 25 of 27 shots while the Panthers amassed 39 shots on goal. Goc scored twice with Gomez and Barkov adding single tallies. All three players are centers, indicating Florida will be fairly strong up the middle.
The Panthers are celebrating their 20th Anniversary this season, starting play as an expansion team in 1993. The brainchild of Blockbuster Video magnate Wayne Huizenga (who also owned the Florida Marlins and Miami Dolphins), the franchise surrounded itself with knowledgeable management, hiring the Islanders' Bill Torrey as President and the Flyers' Bobby Clarke as GM. Under legendary coach Roger Neilson, the Panthers had one of the most successful first seasons of any new NHL team, finishing one point under .500 and missing the playoffs by only one point. Surprisingly, they played to 94% capacity that first year in Miami as crowds flocked to watch former Ranger John Vanbiesbrouck star in goal, Gord Murphy and Joe Cirella on defense, rookie center Rob Niedermayer, Mike Foligno, and former Blues Scott Mellanby (a 30 goal scorer that inaugural season) and Dave Lowry. The first win in franchise history was a 2-0 shutout of the Lightning in front of a then-record crowd of 27,227 in the Tampa Thunderdome.
It only took two years for Florida to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. During opening-night preparations for the 1995-96 season, a rat scurried across the locker room and Mellanby used his stick to one-time it into a wall and killed it. He went on to score two goals that night and VanBiesbrouck quipped that he had scored a "rat-trick." Delighted fans showered the ice with rubber rats two nights later when a goal was scored and a tradition was born. In an amusing coincidence, 1996 was the Year of the Rat in Chinese astrology. The Panthers finished third in the Atlantic Division to the Flyers and Rangers, yet advanced to face Colorado in the Stanley Cup Finals, defeating Boston in five games, Philadelphia in six and Pittsburgh in seven. The "rat magic" ran out as the powerful Avalanche swept Florida, outscoring the Panthers 15 to four, although it took three overtime periods for the Avs to win game four, 1-0. Goaltender Patrick Roy posted a save percentage of .974 in those four games and Joe Sakic won the Conn Smythe Trophy with 18 goals and 34 points in the playoffs.
Florida would begin the following season with a 17 game unbeaten streak, yet somehow managed to fade into obscurity ever since. Owner Huizenga sold the team in 2000 despite the additions of superstar Pavel Bure in a trade with Vancouver and goaltender Roberto Luongo in a trade with the Islanders. The club continued to flounder under new GM Rick Dudley, who added coach Mike Keenan and then highly coveted defenseman Jay Bouwmeester via the amateur draft in 2002. Players, coaches, GMs and even owners came and went in southern Florida, yet it was not until 2011 that the Panthers would make the playoffs, setting a record for futility with ten straight years out of postseason play. New GM Dale Tallon rebuilt the team via the amateur draft and trades under the leadership of coach Kevin Dineen. Florida won the Southeast Division in 2012, yet would lose in the first round of the playoffs to New Jersey. The shortened 2013 season saw them revert to form and they finished with the worst record in the NHL. And the Panthers even lost the draft lottery (to Colorado) and picked (Barkov) second in the 2013 amateur draft. Yikes!
Despite 15 blocked shots in Thursday's home opener (six alone by Roman Polak), the Blues allowed 30 shots against to an offensively weak Nashville club, and that will simply not do against the Panthers tonight. Expect the Blues to tighten up and put forth a better overall defensive effort. They will have to if they expect to remain undefeated.