Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers could become Canada’s darlings

Gerard Gallant discusses the Florida Panthers clinching the Atlantic Division

Florida coach Gerard Gallant talks after his team's win over Montreal which helped clinch the Atlantic Division championship on March 5, 2016.
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Florida coach Gerard Gallant talks after his team's win over Montreal which helped clinch the Atlantic Division championship on March 5, 2016.

The Florida Panthers clinched a playoff spot while en route to Toronto and claimed the Atlantic Division title while in Montreal.

Pardon the locals if they’re a bit envious.

This spring, for the first time since 1970 — yes, before Jaromir Jagr was born — there will be no Canadian teams eligible for the Stanley Cup.

Of the seven Canadian NHL teams, all have been eliminated from the postseason, with the Senators the last team standing until being knocked out themselves last week.

On the flip side, both Florida teams as well as the four teams based in California and Texas will be playing next week. The 1993 Montreal Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the Cup.

Sasha Barkov talks after the Florida Panthers clinch the Atlantic Division after beating the host Canadiens.

“It’s been a while since no Canadian teams made it; I didn’t even know the year,” Jonathan Huberdeau said. “It’s pretty crazy, but it happens. The teams who are in it deserve it. It’s definitely good for our organization.”

For the Panthers, who have almost 60 percent of their current roster comprised of Canadian-born players, the lack of Canadian teams in the postseason is nothing to celebrate.

The Panthers are celebrating their rare appearence in the postseason, however. Florida has been to the playoffs just five times in its history and three times since 1997.

“Growing up in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were always in the playoffs, but they’ve been in a drought lately and a lot of Canadian teams have followed that,” Reilly Smith said.

“It will be a little weird, but it’s far from South Florida, so I’m not going to worry about it too much. Our main goal was to get to the playoffs, and now we have different goals.”

Although Canadian TV networks will continue to cover the playoffs as much as before, not having a local a team to cheer on will have some Canadian fans gravitating to one of the active teams.

The Panthers, with their collection of young players and established stars such as Jagr and Roberto Luongo, could find themselves the beneficiaries of the Canadian postseason blackout.

Brian Campbell wears the Panthers' Spacey In Space sweatshirt as he reflects on playing in his 1,000th NHL game and his team clinching the Atlantic Division.

This week, both the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail did stories speculating how the Panthers could become “Canada’s Team” in the playoffs as they did during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.

One Montreal radio host is pushing the Panthers as a natural for Canadiens fans to root for considering so many flock to South Florida during the winter and that two of Florida’s stars (Luongo and Huberdeau) are from the Montreal area.

The Panthers would welcome all newcomers.

“It could be us, the underdog team, for sure,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “There will be a lot of Canadian fans watching the playoffs, obviously, because they love hockey. We’re a good story, a good franchise. You can talk about Jagr, how the team hasn’t been in the playoffs a whole lot. It would be awesome.”

Said Smith: “Any team that has Jagr on it is going to create a buzz. The more people following us, the better.”