The Panthers will celebrate a pair of homecomings on Saturday night.
First, the franchise will honor the 20th anniversary of its 1996 Stanley Cup Finals team with a reunion featuring many players, coaches and front office members from that incredible rat-tossing run.
On the ice, Philadelphia rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a South Florida native who grew up in Broward County, will finally face off against his hometown Panthers.
“I hope he doesn’t play that well against us,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said.
Gostisbehere, 22, made history early in the 2014-15 season, becoming the first player born and raised in South Florida to appear in an NHL game. He appeared in two games that season.
Gostisbehere, who left South Florida to play high school hockey at a prep school in Connecticut, traveled with the Flyers to Sunrise for their game against the Panthers last season.
But instead of playing against the team he grew up watching and rooting for — Gostisbehere was a member of the junior Panthers in Coral Springs coached by 1996 honoree Ray Sheppard — he was sent back to the minors, where he remained for the rest of that season.
“At the time, I don’t think I was particularly NHL-ready,” Gostisbehere recently told the Courier-Post (New Jersey).
“I was thankful that I got my cup of coffee in the NHL, got my first game in, that my family could be there, and it was a little cherry on top that I got to go to Florida and see my family. Of course, I didn’t get to play, but it was still good just to go.”
This season has been so much different. Gostisbehere, whose father Regis once played at Dania Jai-Alai, is making a serious run at the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie. He already set the NHL’s rookie record for overtime goals (four) and consecutive games with a point (15).
In 47 games this season — he was called up for good in November, missing the Flyers’ previous two games against Florida, which came in the opening two games of the season — Gostisbehere has 14 goals and 23 assists.
The Flyers played at Tampa Bay on Friday, with his whole family in attendance. They’ll come down Interstate 75 to watch Saturday’s game as well.
“He’s having an outstanding season, and it’s great to see a South Florida kid doing so well,” Gallant said. “I’m sure he’s really excited about this. He was supposed to play against us last year and got sent back. It has to be pretty special for him.”
▪ Twenty years ago, the Panthers knocked out the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals en route to the franchise’s first and only run to the Stanley Cup Finals. On Saturday, a good portion of that team will be in Sunrise for a reunion and to remember a time when a scrappy expansion hockey team became the biggest story in a town not known for its native ice.
“Give them all the credit, they worked hard and won,” said Jaromir Jagr, whose Pittsburgh Penguins were upset in the Eastern Conference finals by the Panthers that year. “That’s the playoffs. They outworked everyone.”
Among those attending Saturday will be former coach Doug MacLean, who still resides in South Florida and commutes to Canada on a weekly basis to work as a TV commentator.
Gallant remembers watching that team’s magical run through the playoffs. MacLean, Florida’s first-year coach at the time, had been Gallant’s high school teacher and coach in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
“We watched every game at a sports bar back in PEI,” Gallant said. “It was a lot of fun, the city of Summerside was just abuzz to see a team like that. They weren’t the most talented team, but they were the hardest-working team.”
Also scheduled to appear: John Vanbiesbrouck, Scott Mellanby, Ed Jovanovski, Brian Skrudland, Bryan Murray, Radek Dvorak and Billy Lindsay.
Saturday: Flyers at Panthers
When, where: 7 p.m., BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM 560/WHIM 1080 (depending on whether UM is in ACC basketball championship), WMEN (640), WNMA (1210).
Series: Philadelphia leads 48-33-7.
Scouting report: The teams kicked off the season with two games in three days but haven’t played since. Florida won 7-1 on opening night in Sunrise before losing 1-0 in Philadelphia two days later. … The Flyers are fighting for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and had won five of six going into Friday’s game at Tampa Bay.