The last time the Panthers hoisted a banner to the ceiling to celebrate an on-ice accomplishment, those rafters belonged to the Miami Arena.
Florida hasn’t been able to celebrate much of anything since winning the Eastern Conference finals and heading to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. On Saturday, the Panthers add a second banner to the rafters as the 2011-12 Southeast Division championship flag is flown for the first time.
The Panthers, who ended a decade-long drought by winning their first divisional title last year, enter this abbreviated 48-game season as the hunted. To say the franchise isn’t used to this role is understated.
“We won the division in Washington, and teams within the division mention it. They want to knock off the champions,” goalie Jose Theodore said.
“Teams come prepared. In the first half last year, I think we surprised some people. In the second half, we didn’t. Teams played us much harder. They will from the start this year. We need to be ready. It’s not going to be easy. There are no days off.”
The Panthers come into the 2013 season looking much like they did in 2012. The Panthers’ season ended last year when New Jersey ended a classic first-round series by winning Game 7 in double overtime.
Florida didn’t lose much from that team save for the booming slap shot of defenseman Jason Garrison (who left for Vancouver) and the gritty play of Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit).
The Panthers bring back their two goalies (Theodore and Scott Clemmensen); added some potential scoring punch in 39-year-old Alex Kovalev, Peter Mueller and rookie Jonathan Huberdeau; and Garrison with veteran Filip Kuba.
“Look around this room,” Mueller said the other day. “I’m telling you, we have some talent here.”
Yet the Panthers aren’t picked by many to repeat as division champions.
“If you watch some of the preseason shows, which I do, you can get a feel for where other teams are,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “I don’t think we’re looked upon too highly around the league. That is fine. We’re used to that. We’re going to start in Game 1 and move forward from there.”
The Panthers played a gritty style last season and earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs despite ending the season ranked 27th in goals and losing more overtime games (18) than any other team in the league.
Florida hope it helped its shootout problems by adding specialists Kovalev and Mueller while expecting similar production from players like Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg as all three put up career offensive numbers.
The Panthers also hope for more from Scottie Upshall and Jack Skille, as both spent big chunks of last season on the injured list.
On Saturday, last year gets put in the past. The Panthers are going to enjoy the pregame ceremony for a second — then reality will hit them square in the jaw. Carolina, a team the Panthers beat five of six times last season, has a revamped roster in hopes of making sure the Panthers don’t repeat.
“We don’t have the elephant in the room that we did in previous years and that can free you up a little bit,” Stephen Weiss said, referring to the Panthers’ NHL record for a postseason drought.
“We will enjoy the ceremony for a minute, reflect on last season and then we move on. We’re going to focus on this season and the challenges of this season. We want to do it again.”