Jonathan Huberdeau was just a toddler when Florida Panthers fans would litter the Miami Arena ice with thousands of rubber rats following goals in the team’s magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
Thursday night, Huberdeau got to feel what it was like to have rubberized rodents zip through the air on their way to the ice — this time in Sunrise — after scoring twice in Florida’s 3-2 win over New Jersey.
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The team handed out 10,000 commemorative rubber rats at the door and many of them ended up on the ice.
Unlike in 1996, however, the large-scale rat tossing came with a pair of delay of game penalties against the Panthers. After Florida’s playoff run the NHL added a rule which penalizes the home team if such delays are incurred.
Thursday, 20 years later, the Panthers were hit with a rule of their own making.
“It was a good night but we can’t have rats after every goal or there’s going to be penalties,’’ said Huberdeau, who helped the Panthers retake first in the Atlantic Division after Tampa Bay lost to visiting Montreal.
“But it was a cool atmosphere and was a big win for us. I had never seen [the rats] live, but now they have penalties and it’s tough to go on the penalty kill in a close game.’’
Although some within the team blame visiting New Jersey fans for getting rid of their free rodents and littering the ice, many Florida players and coaches were not happy after the game.
Jaromir Jagr said the league shouldn’t penalize a team for the actions of a few fans — especially not knowing where their rooting interest lay.
“I don’t agree with the penalties; it could have been New Jersey fans throwing them in an important game,’’ Jagr said. “I think the league should do something about it. If they give us a penalty when someone throws a rat, who are we going to play in the playoffs? They’ll hire guys to get them power plays all game.”
Coach Gerard Gallant said he hoped fans realize they cannot throw those rats until the game is over or a penalty could be costly.
“They called it like they have to call it’’ Gallant said. “There’s nothing the [refs] could do. When we throw stuff on the ice, the rule’s been there a long time and we have to know better. I sure hope it doesn’t happen again because we’re battling for a playoff spot.”
Although Thursday’s giveaway likely won’t go down with the Chicago White Sox’s ‘Disco Demolition Night’ or the Cleveland Indians’ ‘10-cent Beer Night’ as the most disastrous promotions of all time, the team may have been wise to think about giving the rats out following the game.
“It’s unfortunate, yet I’m getting reports that it was Devils fans throwing them,’’ executive chairman Peter Luukko said.
“We’re just trying to have some fun, I just wish [officials] would have a sense of humor down there. It was all in fun.”
After Huberdeau’s first goal which tied the score in the second period, the game was delayed a few minutes as officials and ice crew members were forced to clean up hundreds of the rubber rats which were tossed onto the ice.
The crowd was warned not to throw their rats again -- the Panthers would be given a two-minute delay of game penalty if it did.
When Huberdeau scored in the third to make it 2-1, more rats hit the ice and the Panthers were slapped with a penalty their 1996 counterparts inspired.
The NHL’s ‘Rat Trick’ rule came into effect during the 1996-97 season. Florida fans have continued to toss rats onto the ice since, only they do it following victories.
Thursday, many in the large crowd in Sunrise went old-school with their rat tossing. Florida was hit again with 2:08 left after Sasha Barkov made it 3-1.
The Devils scored their second moments after that penalty ended yet only 5.1 seconds remained.
“It was two important points and [the penalties] weren’t funny,’’ Jagr said. “It was 1-1 and we needed the points.”
New Jersey took the initial lead in the first period as the Devils cashed in on a Dmitry Kulikov turn over and made it 1-0 on Mike Sislo’s power play goal.
The Panthers had one of their best periods of the season in the second, yet despite outshooting the Devils 16-3, only scored once.
Down 1-0, Florida tied it at 7:57 of the second when Huberdeau extended his scoring streak to a career-best four games by jamming his own rebound past goalie Keith Kinkaid.
Florida continued coming at Kinkaid and the Devils in the third, with Huberdeau getting his second of the night and fifth in the past four games early in the period.
As the rats came down this time, game officials circled the Florida bench and made the call: two minutes for delay of game. It’s believed to be the first time Florida was victimized by its own rule.
Al Montoya, who beat the Devils in Newark back in December, kept New Jersey off the board on that power play and ended up with 23 saves as he recorded his second win in his past six decisions.
The victory was Florida’s 43rd this season tying the franchise record set in 1999-00. The Panthers also have 95 points and are three away from tying that team’s record as well.