Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida Panthers are the best story in town

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) (center) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets,, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) (center) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets,, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Sunrise, Fla. AP

It is the lot of a hockey franchise in the tropics that last won an NHL playoff series almost 20 years ago: The Florida Panthers are hardly ever the biggest sports story in South Florida.

Look around, even now. The Heat is winning again. The Dolphins are fizzling again. Mark Richt assembles a staff amid renewed Hurricanes football excitement. UM men’s basketball is ranked just outside the top 10. Marlins spring training is near. And, of course, Clemson and Oklahoma are here to play New Year’s Eve in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

No, Panthers hockey still is not the biggest story in town.

It is the best story right now, though.

Not since a serendipitous celebration of rubber rats slapped onto the ice as the expansion Cats were skating into the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 have the Panthers been this good, relevant or interesting.

Florida has won six games in a row and 12 of its past 15 entering Tuesday night’s home date with Montreal in the Sunrise arena.

On Thanksgiving, the Cats seemed headed for another season out of the playoffs. By Christmas, they were the talk of the league — hottest thing on ice. Fans awoke Monday to see their Panthers purring atop the Atlantic Division standings.

It’s as if the years of planning, building and drafting by general manager Dale Tallon have coalesced and found their epiphany.

Two seasons ago the Cats were terrible. Last season, they were the most improved team in the league under new coach Gerard Gallant. Now, they look like the team nobody will want to face in the playoffs.

“It’s fun coming to the rink,” as Gallant put it Monday after a morning practice. “We came in last year and took two giant steps forward even though we didn’t make the playoffs. Coming in this year the guys truly believed that we can play with anybody. There’s not a team that we’re scared to play.”

Step into the Panthers’ dressing room and two things jump out. One is a large picture of the Stanley Cup trophy. Another is the simple declarative in large block letters on either end of the room: NO EXCUSES.

This is the season. The Panthers are not building. They are built.

“We’re not [fooling around] anymore,” as Gallant put it Monday.

The Panthers are a purposeful mix of veterans anchored by goaltender Roberto Luongo and rising young stars like Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson.

The most intriguing Cat, though, is the one nobody expected to still be playing, the one walking toward you with salt amid the pepper on his growth of stubble.

Jaromir Jagr’s 732 career goals are fourth-most in NHL history. Florida acquired him 10 months ago for draft picks, and it has proved a boon for the team and a rejuvenation for Jagr, who will turn 44 in February.

I asked Jagr if he imagined 10 years ago he’d still be playing.

“You can ask me that again in 10 more years,” he said with a smile. “A lot of people laughed that I would still be playing in 2015, and now it is almost ’16. I just enjoy the game. It is what I do.”

Jagr already was a four-time All-Star when the man he plays alongside now, Barkov, was born. Jagr is mentor, father figure, de facto player-coach. The GM Tallon has assembled this roster so deftly a Dolphins fan should wonder if the man dabbles in football and might offer some needed advice.

Tallon describes Jagr as being “given second life,” and he has breathed some of that into this franchise and season.

During this recent surge the club once rumored to perhaps be moving elsewhere was voted an infusion of tourist tax money to assure it will remain in Sunrise.

Crowds, once among the worst in the league, have surged commensurate with the winning. On StubHub Monday you could find a ticket to Thursday’s Clemson-Oklahoma game cheaper than you could buy one for Tuesday’s Panthers-Canadiens game.

“A lot livelier. More buzz,” Tallon described the change in the home arena. “Everything is starting to percolate, and players respond. The crowds are vociferous, engaged. They can feel it. It’s coming.”

Tuesday: Canadiens at Panthers

When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WNMA 1210.

Series: Montreal leads 40-37-6.

Scouting report: The Panthers are 3-0 so far on this six-game homestand, with three one-goal victories over Vancouver, Ottawa and Columbus. … Montreal won four of five games against the Panthers last season, with four of them being decided by one goal and three going to a shootout.

George Richards

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