Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers fans are expecting playoff success

Tesla Beard stood in the shade of a pick-up truck alongside her fellow tailgaters on Thursday. Three flags fly from the truck, one for the United States and two for the Florida Panthers.

Beard is a Toronto native who has been a Panthers fan since she was 9. Game one of the team’s first round series with the New York Islanders was her first Panther game at BB&T Center in Sunrise.

“I decided to just choose my own team,” Beard said. “Since I love cats so much, the little 9-year-old me was like, ‘I’m going to cheer for the team that has cats.’ A year or so later they went to the Cup final and I was absolutely hooked.”

The Panthers have made three playoff appearances since their run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, but have not won a playoff series in 20 years. Fans, from Beard in Toronto to Sunshine State locals, have waited patiently for two decades and arrived ready to taste postseason success once again.

“I’ve been waiting 20 years for a team that has enough caliber to go all the way to the end again,” Fran Roberts said. “I just cannot wait to get inside and feel that intense playoff spirit.”

Wendy Bronchick, another longtime fan, brought her 17-year-old son Bobby to the game and arrived two hours early.

“It’s been a long time waiting,” said Bronchick, who has held season tickets since the team’s inception. “We’re hoping that this year this whole group can really pull it together.”

Plenty about the Panthers has changed in 20 years. The team has different ownership, plays in a different arena, and even has a new superstition.

Circumstances have changed for some fans, as well. Dave Zulick, a long-time Panther fan from Ocean Ridge, gets to enjoy this post-season with his seven-year-old son, Boyton.

“It’s a different level of excitement now,” Zulick said. “I have a son. ... It’s more of an exciting time for me ... to see it through his eyes.”

Thursday’s game was the first playoff game at BB&T Center since 2012. Kurt Hardley attended that game four years ago, and even a recent move to Clover, South Carolina, would not keep him away from the game.

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“I sat through game seven of the first round,” Hardley said of the team’s last playoff appearance in 2012. “I had the agony of defeat in that one. ... I think we have a legitimate shot this time.”

Unlike the surprise run of 1996, longtime fans like Scott Sprigle are hopeful that playoff hockey will become a more-regular occurrence in South Florida.

“Unfortunately, the year of the rat was a flash in the pan,” Sprigle said. “Looking at our roster right now, ... this team is built to go. ... If we don’t make it out of this round it would be really disappointing.”

Added Bronchick: “I feel more hopeful about their whole plan going forward. I hope that this playoff stuff becomes the norm.”

If the team continues to improve, Beard’s first trip from Canada to a Panther playoff series won’t be her last, and she’ll have more reason to cheer for the team than a childhood fondness of felines.

“This team is in it for the long haul,” Beard said. “They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”