David J. Neal

Florida Panthers’ Year of the Rat ended in an Avalanche of goodwill

Fans cheer the Florida Panthers during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche at Miami Arena on June 10, 1996.
Fans cheer the Florida Panthers during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche at Miami Arena on June 10, 1996. Miami Herald File Photo

One round

That’s how long the Panthers would last in the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs said those going by the “hot at the end of the season” theory.

Two rounds.

That’s how long the Panthers would last according to me, then in the third of my 11 seasons as The Herald’s beat writer covering the Panthers and my 24th season as a puckhead. The chalk would walk — the No. 4 Eastern Conference seed Panthers would beat No. 5 seed Boston and fall against mammoth No. 1 seed Philadelphia.

Three rounds

That’s how many rounds the Panthers won as they towed South Florida like water skiers through a stormy emotional odyssey that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Four rounds

That’s where the same reality clashed with the Panthers dream that clashed with their opponents’ dreams the previous three rounds: the better team won.

Nobody, however, had more fun.

STRONG FINISH

This playoff run didn’t come out of nowhere. But it definitely didn’t come from the last month of the season.

The Year of the Rat party slammed into a lull on Feb. 24, Game No. 60, the first of the five-game season series against the Rangers that looked as if it could decide the East’s No. 1 seed. The largest pregame warmup crowd to that point circled the Miami Arena rink. Panthers radio play-by-play broadcaster Chris Moore theorized the Panthers fans didn’t want to arrive on Miami time and be shown up by the always plentiful Rangers fans.

First-year NHL head coach Doug MacLean started his hot backup, Mark Fitzpatrick, over No. 1 goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. Fitzpatrick looked as overwhelmed as the rest of the Panthers in a 4-0 loss.

That started an eight-game winless streak. A trade deadline deal for right wing Ray Sheppard gave the Panthers the natural goal-scorer they lacked. Picking up shifty fast Martin Straka off waivers from the Islanders also raised the Panthers’ skill level.

Still, with a playoff spot still not assured, the Panthers blew a two-goal lead and Straka missed a penalty shot in a 3-2 loss to a still-poor Ottawa team. MacLean carpet F-bombed the team the next day during practice in Montreal. They lost their sixth loss in seven games, 2-1 to Montreal. The Panthers didn’t own a playoff space until other teams lost while they lost in Miami Arena to Tampa Bay in Game No. 80.

Injuries and sudden slumps left MacLean using career defensive forward Jody Hull on the power play. By that point, Hull’s career season, 20 goals and 37 points, had slowed like a Hot Wheels car at the end of its push. With the playoffs finally clinched, MacLean could laugh a little about that when I ran into him at the Long Island Marriott bar the night before game No. 81.

MacLean’s despair surely remained deep the next night as the Panthers fell behind the long-eliminated Islanders 1-0 in the first period. Then, as if the odor from decades of sweat in the Nassau Coliseum visiting locker room’s walls revived them from a six-week nap, the Panthers overwhelmed the Isles during the last two periods and overtime. Only spectacular goaltending kept the Panthers from a crushing triumph instead of a 1-1 tie.

Doug MacLean, who coached the Florida Panthers from 1995 to 1998, says he has "nothing but great memories" regarding the team's run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

Rangers goalie Mike Richter provided no such resistance in the season finale. The Panthers’ 5-1 rout should have been a hint and a half for the rest of the East.

Instead, most saw a team with playoff rookies (No. 1 defenseman Robert Svehla, No. 1 center Rob Niedermayer, Bill Lindsay, Paul Laus, Jason Woolley), actual rookies (Radek Dvorak, Ed Jovanovski, Rhett Warrener) veterans with little playoff experience (Hull, Mike Hough, Stu Barnes) or disappointing playoff experience (Sheppard, Straka). Save Vanbiesbrouck, those with a playoff past (Scott Mellanby, team captain Brian Skrudland, Tom Fitzgerald, Dave Lowry, Johan Garpenlov, Terry Carkner) did so playing smaller roles than with the Panthers’ socialist distribution of ice time.

ROUND 1: BOSTON BRUINS

Personally, I saw a faster, deeper, more physical Panthers team that rediscovered its game — hockey distilled to its most basic elements — during the last five periods of the season. I liked them against a Boston team that had to ride defenseman Ray Bourque, center Adam Oates and a few others heavily just to make the playoffs. As the Panthers often initially backed away from new achievement levels, I saw them losing Game 1, winning Games 2-4, blowing their first chance to clinch in Game 5, then winning Game 6.

About 30 seconds into the first game, I thought, “Should’ve predicted a sweep.” The Panthers’ fast forecheck began bruising the Bruins immediately with a ferocity that formed a symbiotic relationship with a crowd bringing its own playoff voice.

I wondered about the fans “Will they get it? Will they respond to the jacked-up intensity?”

For years afterwards, one hockey-hating local sports talk host claimed the Panthers didn’t sell out their first playoff game. Actually, the game sold out in 30 minutes. Miami Arena, built in 1988 and outdated by the Panthers’ 1993 debut, stunk for parking, using the restroom, getting food. … anything except watching a game as a howling fan. The pink cakebox’s limited size magnified all sound, making it one of the NHL’s most rousing arenas on a night-to-night basis in the regular season.

Those playoff crowds needed no amplification. They got it. When Panthers rookie defenseman Ed Jovanovski blasted massive Marc Potvin into the air and off the glass in the first period, the reaction almost matched that of a regular-season goal.

Former Florida Panthers coach Doug MacLean and former players Scott Mellanby and John Vanbiesbrouck reflect on the 'Year of the Rat,' when the Cats made it to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

What felt like the Panthers’ game remained scoreless in the first until Stu Barnes reversed himself in the right corner, lost Oates and fed Sheppard in the right circle. Stick on the ice, Sheppard softly whipped in the first goal in Panthers playoff history.

Hough’s first career playoff goal and Hull followed in 67 seconds. The Panthers withstood a Bruins pushback to 3-2, then resumed the rout midway through the second period on their way to a 6-3 win.

The score seemed closer than the game to almost everyone except the Bruins. I later heard they grumbled on their flight home over South Florida media accounts that made Game 1 sound like the blowout it was. They flew back to Boston for an NFL-sized four-day break. Miami Arena, clearly expecting empty time as the NHL playoffs began, booked several Garth Brooks concerts for those dates.

Boston returned. So did the Panthers. So did Game 1, slightly altered: final score, 6-2. Jovanovski opened the scoring with a whistling wrister from between the circles. Days before, he promised his cancer-stricken best friend, Bobi Ilovski, a goal. Ilovski’s funeral was the day of Game 2.

The rats showered during Games 1 and 2. Trash showered briefly in Game 3, activity by the few Boston fans left late in the third. The Panthers quieted the FleetCenter quickly with a silence spell of scoring. Hull struck 30 seconds into the game. By 12:19 of the first, the Panthers led 3-0. During what Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber called “The Dead Puck Era,” three-goal leads tended to be Volvo safe. That meant a 3-0 series lead, even safer, after the Panthers glided home up 4-2.

Their first and last goals came from a player MacLean considered a power-play last resort. To do the unlikely, the unlikely must do.

Game 4’s predictable 6-2 loss taught any neophyte playoff fans nothing comes that easy to blue-collar types like the Panthers. Too many solid citizens wore the spoked B to succumb meekly.

That’s why Saturday afternoon’s Game 5 sat tied 3-3 with 5:00 left in the third as Bill Lindsay raced onto a blocked shot.

It began as the first three games did. Even light-in-the-butt Panthers such as Dvorak and Garpenlov hurled their bodies around. Instead of getting bum rushed to the airport as in Games 1 and 2, Boston hung in to twice tie the score. You could almost see overtime when Hull blocked a shot into the neutral zone.

Lindsay hurtled toward the puck. Bourque, still a perennial postseason All-Star, retreated. The swift Lindsay accelerated into his passing gear to roar outside Bourque’s left flank. The upshift stunned Bourque, leaving him desperately whirling and diving to trip Lindsay. Bourque’s stick successfully caused Lindsay to stumble as he cut to the net, but couldn’t prevent Lindsay from pulling the puck to his forehand and pushing it toward the goal. In moving with Lindsay, Boston goalie Bill Ranford created the hole through the puck slid.

Miami Arena exploded. And stayed there. The plastic rat pickup by the Orkin-sponsored crew ended well before the sonic euphoria. On the television broadcast, Jeff Rimer gamely tried to shout joy with a cold-damaged voice. Off a tape of that broadcast, I clocked the ovation at 2:06.

Time remained for Boston to make the Lindsay goal just a nice highlight. In another year, that might have happened. Not in 1996, however. Lindsay’s goal held up as the game-winner, the Panthers’ first series winner just as it has held up as the greatest goal in franchise history.

ROUND 2: PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

The Panthers’ business side quickly planned to capitalize on the play with t-shirts and framed photo sets. The hockey side looked forward to Round 2 against Philadelphia.

The Big, Ugly People, I called them. Broad shoulders, long arms, big feet. The Legion of Doom centered by Eric Lindros, the Hulk with Flash speed, with John LeClair and Mikael Renberg on the wings. Big goalie Ron Hextall. Big defensive center Joel Otto. Fitness freak center Rod Brind’Amour. Size down the middle, breadth on the wings and defense to eliminate the room for the Panthers’ speed.

That didn’t happen in the first two meetings, both won by the Panthers in November. But the Flyers took a third November game, tied with the Panthers the first game out of the All-Star break and controlled a Valentine’s Day game in Miami Arena. Officials surely being more laissez-faire about calling holding and hooking in the playoffs favored the slower team, especially in slowing up a forecheck.

I wrote that Philadelphia lost two OT games in the first round to Tampa Bay, but would win two against the Panthers and take the series in five games.

Well, I got right that there would be two overtime games in the first five.

Meanwhile, the Panthers made a few adjustments.

Up at Pompano’s Gold Coast Ice Arena, fans used to cloister around the door for autographs. Players who wanted to limit their inundation learned to leave the former bingo hall entrance behind Niedermayer, Vanbiesbrouck, Jovanovski or Skrudland and slip off only semi-noticed. Eventually, the team placed metal barriers near the doors. As the playoff practice crowds grew from few to full, those barriers got moved to the edge of the parking lot. Funny enough, with the fans at a distance, more players actually went over to sign all manner of everything.

Former Florida Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck discusses coining the term "rat trick" and the team's "Year of the Rat" in the 1995-1996 season.

During the Miami Arena era, they would have the morning skate at Gold Coast, then check into the Omni Hotel in downtown Miami for pregame rest. Postgame, players went straight to their cars and skedaddled. Now, the team started having players eat a postgame meal at the arena and taking up residence at the Fort Lauderdale Westin.

On the ice, they matched No. 1 pair of shy Slovak Robert Svehla and reticent Terry Carkner against the Legion of Doom, but wouldn’t worry if Jovanovski’s pair wound up facing Lindros, et al.

Also, they employed the neutral zone trap for perhaps the only time all season. Under Roger Neilson during the franchise’s first two seasons, the Panthers became infamous trap masters. One factor in Neilson’s dismissal was general manager Bryan Murray hated laying back and clogging the neutral zone when the Panthers possessed the speed to get in on the forecheck. The MacLean Panthers forechecked and counterattacked much more aggressively, but few outside South Florida saw it until the Eastern Conference final. None of the Panthers’ regular-season games or first-round playoff games were nationally televised.

Which is why you still hear the falsehood that the Panthers trapped their way to the Stanley Cup Final.

This would be the final NHL playoff spring for The Spectrum in Philadelphia. The CoreStates Center, under construction across the parking lot, would be ready by October. I got the feeling the Panthers felt a little bummed. Many grew up watching games from there as the Flyers made six Stanley Cup Finals runs in the 1970s and 1980s, winning two Cups. Besides, between the raucous Philly crowd and usually eventful games, the Panthers always seemed to enjoy The Spectrum.

They certainly did in Game 1, although nobody else did. The Panthers won a sleepy 2-0 game on goals by Barnes and a goal Barnes set up for Dave Lowry, who now had four in six games. Vanbiesbrouck saw only 18 shots, maybe only three worth an NHL goalie’s time. Afterwards, Flyers coach Terry Murray grumbled that neither team did enough to win.

And there’s the contentiousness that marked this series more than any other. Players clashed. Coaches complained loudly. Members of the respective media corps took unprofessional shots at each other (guilty). Even by playoff standards, the scent of Extra Ornery lingered for two weeks.

All that Game 1 lacked got packed into Game 2, a 3-2 Panthers loss. The big agitator, Lindros, did his job. Credit him with the game-winning goal; two assists; two big hits given; one taken from Jovanovski; two El Kabong high sticks to Laus (called) and Barnes (uncalled); a slash to Jovanovski’s knee (uncalled) that crumpled the big rookie; and removal of Vanbiesbrouck’s mask as the goalie covered a puck. This was the Lindros the NHL dreamed about. Hailed as the embodiment of their city in one building, hated everywhere else.

Game 3 seemed the turning point. The scoresheet says the Panthers lost 3-1 only by the two goals Philadelphia scored during Skrudland’s high-sticking double minor. The play on the ice, a pouty postgame brawl started by the Panthers and the demeanor in the home locker room more honestly told the story. Philadelphia clearly outplayed the Panthers.

Down in the visitors’ dressing room, they weren’t complaining about the rats flying after Laus’ lone Panthers goal, but little bottles that thrown on the ice and toward the visitors’ penalty box. The way Games 2 and 3 had gone, with the Flyers taking increasing control, the vibe said Panthers fans might have one more game to see their team.

As Philly’s No. 1 center began Alpha Male-ing the series, the Panthers’ No. 1 center remained stuck in Beta. Rob Niedermayer’s invisibility was a sun mole against Boston, a cancerous problem against Philadelphia. An out-of-town media member had begun dating a Miami woman so he wanted the Panthers to stay in the playoffs. Before Game 4, he pointed to a Herald picture of Niedermayer and declared “That guy is the one who is killing us.”

One period into Game 4, Philadelphia could say the same thing. The book on on Rob and his brother, New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer, said they were middle-class guys who truly put out only when challenged by the situation. The situation, Panthers down 2-1 in the series, challenged Niedermayer. Coaches challenged Niedermayer.

He responded by barging around Eric Desjardins 1:02 into the game for the first of two first-period goals as the Panthers jumped on top 2-0. Those goals sandwiched a titanic open ice hit, Jovanovski catching Lindros with his head down as the big center crossed the Panthers line.

When people remember Vanbiesbrouck in these playoffs, I think they remember four things: his breakaway save on Mario Lemieux in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final; a save on a charging Jaromir Jagr late in Game 6, same series; Game 7 against Pittsburgh; and Game 4 against Philadelphia.

This series turned on a spinning, glove-flashing Vanbiesbrouck holding the Flyers to two second period goals as they overwhelmed the Panthers throughout the middle 20 minutes. At the other end, Hextall did a Hextall — gave up a bad goal at the wrong time. He came inexplicably out into the slot on a Laus wrister from the point, creating room for Barnes deflection goal with 5.5 seconds left in the period.

Vanbiesbrouck maintained that 3-2 lead as long as he could. That turned out to be 1:07 short of a regulation win. Renberg muscled in front, got two shots and brought on overtime.

The Panthers first playoff overtime showed any unwashed what makes NHL sudden death playoff overtime perhaps the most exciting setup in sports.

Lindros found Dale Hawerchuk open as Hawerchuk drove the left post. Hawerchuk fired low. Vanbiesbrouck, uncommonly standing straight up, caught the shot between his skates. Hawerchuk poked at the rebound just before the air around Vanbiesbrouck seemed to explode with Flyers and Panthers diving for the puck. Briefly unable to see it from the press box, I stared instead at the goal light. One blink of red and the Panthers go to The Spectrum for Game 5 down 3-1. One blink of red would be the bar lights blinking – last call on the Panthers party.

No light blink. A few minutes later, a Jovanovski wrist shot from the point skimmed off a Lowry deflection and into a goal cage being lifted off its back (but not its moorings) by Mellanby and a Flyers defenseman.

Former Florida Panthers right wing Scott Mellanby reflects on killing a rat with his hockey stick, a story which led to the 'Year of the Rat' craze in the 1995-1996 season.

Game, 4-3, Panthers. Series tied. On the scoreboard, at least. On the ice, Philadelphia had the better of it. Paradoxically, that seemed to put the Panthers up in their heads.

Two off days preceded a Mother’s Day Game 5. In the Panthers’ five seasons at Gold Coast Ice Arena, never did I feel a more relaxed, assured air filling the Panthers Spartan facilities than that Friday. It was as if the air conditioning blew out confidence. Everybody possessed a happy face. A couple of players watching Game 4 with video coordinator John Christiano laughed incredulously at Hextall coming so far out of his cage on the Barnes goal. “What’s Hexy doing?”

The Flyers took a 1-0 lead into Game 5’s third period. But, as with the big picture of the series, the Panthers felt six steps ahead of where the scoreboard said they were. The run of play tilted toward them. Lindros scored just after the first penalty in a five-on-three advantage ended. Earlier, the Panthers killed off a five-minute major penalty. Two prime power play chances for Philadelphia to take control and the Panthers kept the Flyers within one shot.

That shot, 2:39 into the third, barely deserved the term. A Barnes right circle slider snuck between Hextall’s pads at curling rock speed.

From there, the Panthers took over the series. Their speed, not the Flyers’ size, emerged as the dominant element. Niedermayer and Dvorak threw waves of youth and pace at the Flyers. Desperate efforts by Hextall pushed the game to overtime, then a second overtime.

But as the Philadelphia Daily News Les Bowen wrote, rarely did a double overtime game’s ending seem so inevitable. The Panthers held a 12-4 shot advantage in the first overtime, 17-5 at the end. Rookie defenseman Warrener snuffed the Flyers’ best scoring chance when he extended to block a pass to a breaking Brind’Amour.

The inevitable of which Bowen wrote occurred 8:05 into the second OT. Hull grabbed a loose puck just inside the line and saw Hough alone at the left post. Hextall’s poke check of Hough left him prone as Hough recovered the puck, whirled and slapped home the last NHL goal scored at The Spectrum.

Assistant coaches Duane Sutter and Lindy Ruff engulfed MacLean and equipment manager Mark Brennan in a group hug on the Panthers’ bench. The players piled on each other around Hough on the ice. A wood folding chair clattered onto the ice.

The game-winning overtime goal came from the checking line. Young players set the late-game tempo off which veterans fed. The penalty kill and Vanbiesbrouck tamed Philadelphia when necessary. Team win.

Game 5 was a formality. Philadelphia never looked threatening. The Panthers defensive positioning was too good and the Flyers seemed too disheartened to deal with it. Lindsay gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead in the first. Niedermayer, then Lowry pushed the lead to 3-0 in the third. The Panthers came home eased up 4-1 to take the series 4-2.

The most noise Lindros made in the last six periods of the series came during the postgame handshake. Jovanovski said Lindros told him, “Keep going.”

Fans lingered outside Miami Arena for hours afterwards to form a cheering line for the exiting Panthers.

ROUND 3: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Up next in the Eastern Conference final, Pittsburgh. The Penguins resembled their 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup winners up front. You could argue the Pens dressed the two most offensively talented forwards in hockey history in Mario Lemieux and horse Jaromir Jagr. Future Hall of Famer Ron Francis centered the second line, but had a broken foot. Wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Petr Nedved gave the Pens five 25-goal scorers. Third line center Bryan Smolinski chipped in 24.

The blueline, on the other hand, looked Cup-winning only if you’re talking Calder Cup. Sergei Zubov ranked as one of the league’s best offensive defensemen. The rest of the defense lacked mobility. I saw Mellanby, a mediocre skater, go around them earlier in the season. Aside from Zubov, J.J. Daigneault and Chris Joseph, the defensemen didn’t move the puck particularly well out of the back.

Pittsburgh worried about the Miami Arena ice, never the best, being too lumpy in late spring for their skill players. The Panthers answered they wanted smooth Edmonton-like ice, too, for their fast forwards.

The Panthers had just beaten the one Eastern team I didn’t think they could. I liked them in six this round.

It might have been four had Pittsburgh goalie Ken Wregget not been so wretched — or had wretched luck — in Game 1. Wregget got replaced by Tom Barrasso, who kept the Panthers from blowing out Pittsburgh in Game 2’s first period and flat-out stole Game 4.

Vanbiesbrouck got peppered with questions about being the goalie who gave up the most goals to Lemieux. He answered politely, never pointing out the obvious — he spent most of his career with the Rangers during a time they might play the Pens eight or nine times a season.

In December against the Panthers, Lemieux scored on a breakaway 30 seconds into the game, the first goal in a spectacular hat trick. Just five minutes into Game 1, the best on breakaways to ever swing a stick cruised in, frighteningly alone. Lemieux went to pull the puck to his backhand and Vanbiesbrouck shocked him with a daring poke check.

The Panthers already led 1-0. Wregget committed hard to Lowry in the right circle. Lowry’s pass for a left post slam dunk by Barnes instead went behind Wregget off Zubov’s skate. Late in the first, a blown offside call allowed a 4-on-3 rush to finish with Fitzgerald lifting home a backhand.

Fitzgerald scored on a 60-foot slapped glider by Wregget’s ear early in the second period: 3-0. Lowry got credit when his centering pass into counter rush garbage caromed into the net. His ninth goal of the playoffs put “Florida’s Dave Lowry, 1996” with “Washington’s John Druce, 1990” as prime examples of regular-season grinders who turned playoff goal-scorers.

The next day, the Panthers exuded confident humility. Pittsburgh just exuded confidence. Nedved finished an answer to the media with a sigh and “We’ll win” as if Game 1 was a minor annoyance. Jagr analyzed Vanbiesbrouck’s pad play as the result of great legs, “as good as Petr’s girlfriend.”

Game 2 should have been over during an eventually scoreless first period. Nobody in the press box I talked to could remember a team in a conference final not facing the 1980s Edmonton Oilers giving up so many odd-man rushes as the Pens gave up to the Panthers. Each time, however, either a blown final pass or Barrasso foiled the scoring chance.

The Pens won 3-2 to tie the series. Game 3, on a Friday night, felt like a South Beach pre-party. After Ray Sheppard scored to put the Panthers up 1-0, the Panthers kept poking at the Pens’ stars. A neutral zone face-off saw Lindsay tap his helmet against Jagr’s. Tap, tap, poke, poke. Jagr reacted enough to get a roughing minor. Svehla got a roughing minor after he and Lemieux exchanged progressively harder push-punches to the head and chest until Svehla scored a knockdown.

Pittsburgh briefly took a 2-1 second period lead, but Dvorak scored on a tight angle rebound to send the game into the third period at 2-2. What ensued might’ve been the best period of Panthers hockey ever.

They forechecked Pittsburgh to death and beyond. Turnover after turnover led to a 23-2 shot advantage, two goals by Barnes and one by former Penguin Straka. A furious Lemieux took a roughing penalty late in the 5-2 rout, for which he’d be complimented by Penguins coach Eddie Johnston as being one of the few Penguins who fought back.

A 2-1 series lead with Game 4 at Miami Arena two days after a three-goal win put the Panthers in position to wobble Pittsburgh badly.

That’s when Panthers fans got reminded their team was playing against the big boys.

Lowry’s 10th playoff goal, a deflection of a Carkner point shot, put the Panthers up 1-0 in the second. Barrasso velvet roped everything else.

The Panthers continued to sit on Jagr and Lemieux, the former hitting the post on a breakaway and the latter getting stripped by a diving Svehla as he came in alone. Hough blasted Jagr with a shoulder to the head in the first period. Third period goals by Brad Lauer and Bryan Smolinski left the Panthers lamenting a 2-1 loss despite a 32-24 shot advantage and third period lead.

In contrast to the jocular practice facility after Game 4 of the Flyers series, everything looked tight around Gold Coast at 2-2 versus Pittsburgh. Tight smiles, tight walks, tight voices. Now, they were the team thinking they should be in control of the series instead of sitting even.

After an early Game 5 icing, Skrudland argued with the linesman all the way back up ice even before his usual face-off circle filibuster. Too much, too edgy. I recall a Skrudland breakaway off a bad Penguins defense change that Barrasso easily stoned. I don’t recall another Panthers scoring chance in the 3-0 loss.

For the first time in the series, the Panthers got outplayed. For the first time, they faced playoff elimination.

Yet their belief in themselves as the better team never wavered.

“We know what to expect out of them and we expect more out of ourselves,” read the Panthers locker room board.

Flat and down 2-1 in Game 6, they got what they needed from unlikely sources. Garpenlov, who had the usual western European aversion to just firing away, did it from the left circle. Lindsay popped in the rebound, his fifth goal in 17 playoff games after 12 in 73 regular season games.

Considering everything on the line for both teams, I pick the third period of Game 6 as the most thrilling period in Panthers history.

Vanbiesbrouck and Barrasso traded saves in the third until Straka picked up a loose puck, skipped past Daigneault like a pylon at the blue line, worked a pretty give-and-go with Lindsay and roofed a 3-2 lead. Such a beautiful hockey play of excessive speed and skill (Lindsay?) had to be the game-winner, just as Lindsay’s goal against Boston, right?

Yes in Round 1. Not in Round 3 with survival at stake.

Lemieux fed Joseph, Joseph turned the puck to Sandstrom cutting behind the Panthers defense from the opposite boards. Sandstrom made it 3-3 with just over seven minutes left. The clock ticked toward virtual overtime as Niedermayer, goalless in the series, bent over a left circle faceoff in the Pens zone against Smolinski.

Again, the situation brought out Niedermayer’s best. He smoked Smolinski to set up Carkner’s point shot, then took two rebound shots to score his first goal of the series. More importantly, the Panthers fourth of the game with 6:02 remaining.

Vanbiesbrouck sticking out one of those legs Jagr complimented to stone No. 68 with 34.6 seconds left let Niedermayer’s goal stand up as the winner.

Doug MacLean was as loose as I had seen him all playoffs in the hotel when we talked casually in downtown Pittsburgh’s Westin William Penn hours before Game 7. When ordered by an editor to find out when the Panthers charter would arrive back in South Florida should they lose, I couldn’t get an answer out of Bryan Murray.

“We’re not losing!” he insisted, refusing to even entertain the thought.

Vanbiesbrouck rejected Lemieux and Jagr, playing on the same line again, on a wrister (Lemieux) and left post backhander (Jagr). The scoring opened at 13:13 of the first with the two stars on the ice. But the goal came from Hough on a 2-on-1 with Svehla off a turnover created by Skrudland. He now had as many goals in the series as Lemieux and Jagr, each.

The Panthers seemed to go into a shell from then until Lemieux fed Nedved in the slot on a power play 1:23 into the third. And, here, a funny feeling settled over a tense Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena — for all the pretty plays Pittsburgh could create out of nothing, for all the shots and scoring chances the Panthers ground out throughout the series, for all the quick answers each team had for each other, especially in Game 6… the sense held that whoever got the next goal would meet Colorado in the Stanley Cup Final.

Vanbiesbrouck kicked away Lemieux’s try from low in the right circle. A few shifts later, Fitzgerald hit the Pens line and fired a line change slapshot. The shot skimmed off defenseman Neil Wilkinson’s stick and off a stunned Barrasso. The Panthers were 13:42 from the Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers piled back into the defensive zone to help Vanbiesbrouck. Pittsburgh’s attack increased in heedlessness until Lindsay and Garpenlov broke out 2-on-1. Lindsay fed Garp, whose slapper hit Barrasso, popped into the air and plopped down on the Stanley Cup Final side of the goal line with 2:37 left.

Unlike teams that superstitiously refuse to touch the conference championship trophy with the Cup still to be won, the Panthers wholly hugged their achievement. They took a team picture on the ice with the Prince of Wales trophy, training staffers and all.

In the immediate aftermath, Lemieux refused to publicly complain about the times the Panthers hooked or held him with impunity. Instead, he called the Panthers the best defensive team he had played against, an act of class MacLean always appreciated.

Back in South Florida, even more cars sprouted Panthers flags. South Beach bars and clubs put the games on screens that usually displayed basketball or techno colors.

FINAL ROUND: COLORADO AVALANCHE

Murray grumbled that the Panthers never had even a day of home recovery before flying to Denver for the Stanley Cup Final. He felt the players should be allowed to celebrate, but the short turnaround left the Panthers flat.

It didn’t matter. All Colorado lacked the previous season, its last in Quebec, was dependable goaltending. When the Avalanche traded for Patrick Roy, they got about as dependable a goalie as put on pads, a two-time Stanley Cup-winner still at his peak. Add in a superior blueline. Throw in two lines of first-line talent, one centered by omnitalented Peter Forsberg, the other by slick Joe Sakic.

Colorado coach Patrick Roy discusses beating the Florida Panthers at Miami Arena as goalie of the Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

The addition said the Panthers chances lay with Vanbiesbrouck stealing a game or three. Goaltending is a head game. The Avs decided to mess with Vanbiesbrouck’s noggin before Game 1 by protesting tape on the knob of his goalie stick.

A 3-1 Game 1 loss was followed by Forsberg’s hat trick in an 8-1 Game 2 annihilation. It prompted the line of the series from Skrudland: “I knew we were in trouble when we were down a touchdown and I didn’t see Dan Marino on our bench.”

Game 3 started as Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final did, with Sheppard scoring from the right circle. Whereas Barrasso responded to the rain of rats by backing into his goal, Roy regally stood outside, letting them bounce off of him. The not-so-subtle message was that he was above being cowed.

With the game tied 2-2 in the second, Lindsay’s stick broke in the defensive zone. Not wanting the stick to perhaps deflect a shot by him, Vanbiesbrouck swept it out into the zone. That’s where it lay as Warrener retreated with Sakic bearing down on him one-on-one. Warrener tripped over the stick. Sakic beat Vanbiesbrouck for the game-winner.

In the Cup Final, nothing’s easy. The Panthers pluck brought them too far to fade before a 3-0 series deficit as the puck dropped for Game 4. Determined to extend the series beyond that Monday, June 10, they did — by 66 minutes.

Uwe Krupp’s drive from the right point beat Vanbiesbrouck to open the scoring and close the 1995-96 season at 1:06 a.m. of June 11. Three periods and three overtimes. 1-0.

Some Panthers wept. All knew they had been part of a special journey. The older ones recognized it as a unicorn trip in their careers. They expanded a fan base by briefly spoiling it. Twenty years later, those 53 days remain the franchise’s zenith.

A revival would be appreciated.

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