David J. Neal: Florida Panthers do little to win over fans

01/27/2013 12:01 AM

03/16/2014 9:49 PM

Movies, television, all forms of entertainment love to show us the reconciliation. We don’t see the months of relationship rebuilding that follows.

The Panthers’ season opener Jan. 19 at BB&T Center, a 5-1 trouncing of Carolina in front of a screaming sellout crowd, counts as the reconciliation after the NHL and NHLPA estranged many fans by brinksmanship with another one-season Armageddon possible. They got that right.

Now they’re blowing the relationship reconstruction.

Saturday’s 7-1 loss to Philadelphia can’t just be classified as “one of those nights.” It’s the fourth consecutive multigoal loss. It’s the fourth consecutive game full of fundamental mistakes. It’s the fourth consecutive game the Panthers started as if they got notified of the game during a Bud-and-Doodle Jump sloth fest about an hour before the opening puck drop.

“One thing that needs to be a constant for this team is hard work. And there wasn’t any [Saturday night],” Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said. “It’s the one way we stay competitive. Winning those battles, coming up with loose pucks.”

Seemingly every Philadelphia counter rush resulted in a goal or Panthers penalty. The latter violations grew from being out of position at the end of the failed offensive rush or too MomVan-with-driver-on-the-cell-phone like in getting back on defense. Everything that went wrong in the previous three losses got put on display to a greater degree.

This gets old fast. Especially in we’re-with-you-win-or-blowout-win South Florida. Especially with a fan base too used to two steps forward, three steps back from this franchise.

They got a sellout crowd for the opener and an announced 15,634 for Ottawa on a Thursday. A near sellout on a Saturday night against Philadelphia counts as a given. Ticket sales got the usual assistance from transplanted Flyers fans, who stirred up a respectable “Let’s go, Flyers” chant as Philly spent a month in the Panthers’ zone during one first-period shift.

The Panthers can have jersey giveaways, town hall meetings, cheap season tickets, autograph sessions, fireside chats and massages, and it wouldn’t matter unless they start to look something like the team that broke the playoff drought last spring. The relationship returns to rocky and the Panthers return to half-empty arenas, the back pages and back corner bar TVs.

“This is like a 1-8 start,” Jovanovski said. “We’ve got to find a way to stop it quick or it’s going to be a miserable three or four months.”

Any solution will come from inside the locker room.

Even if 29 other NHL general managers blow up Dale Tallon’s cellphone like Southeastern Conference coaches after a five-star recruit, don’t expect him to answer just yet. Some possible trade bait’s injured. Tallon’s not going to deal the Panthers’ coveted young talent to save a season so abbreviated that the Stanley Cup winner still will play fewer games than perpetually playoff-less Jay Bouwmeester does annually.

That said, this season’s more important to the Panthers than most other NHL franchises. Follow up a stirring playoff appearance with a total flop? Can I get a witness, Marlins fans who remember 1998?

And with such a pivotal season, the Panthers are off to their worst start since 2009-10. They finished last that year. As I entered the locker room after the season finale, I ran into a Panthers player who had been with the team since I’d been The Miami Herald’s Panthers beat reporter some years earlier. I mentioned this was the first game I’d covered all season.

“You didn’t miss much,” he said.

Then-Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said exactly the same thing as he passed me going into his postgame news conference.

A few more nights like Saturday, and even some hardcore Panthers fans will decide they weren’t missing much with the lockout.

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