Greg Cote

These Panthers might be best in team history, but proving starts now

This is the best Florida Panthers team in franchise history.

The Cats have spent the past six months staking that claim, offering us evidence, tantalizing with the possibility.

Now all they have to do is go prove it.

See, the real hockey is just about to start.

There haven’t been many nights like Saturday’s in this club’s 22 NHL seasons, when a regular-season-ending Fan Appreciation Night doubles as a team appreciation night. Usually it’s the players saying thanks but sorry because the games have ended with no playoffs. Now the real season has just begun, with an 82-game warmup skate about to give way to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Cats looked ready for it Saturday in a 5-2 skate-waltz past the Carolina Hurricanes on goals by Teddy Purcell, Jussi Jokinen and Aaron Ekblad all in the first seven minutes, a second-period blast by Jonathan Huberdeau and then a last-second empty-netter by Reilly Smith.

It’s a cruise-ship foghorn sound that fills the arena with every home goal. To Carolina it must have sounded like a locomotive’s warning as it’s about to run you over.

“I figured we’d play well at home,” said Gerard Gallant, who should be a frontrunner for coach of the year honors. “But first you want for nobody to get hurt and make sure you’re ready for the playoffs.”

The Cats almost won twice Saturday but did not. The New York Islanders had to lose in regulation Saturday to assure the Isles would be Florida’s first-round playoff team. Now, instead, it will be determined Sunday if the opponent is the Isles or the veteran, playoff-tested Rangers, who would be the tougher matchup of the two New York teams.

Florida’s win ended with a perfect kaleidoscope: a smattering of celebratory rubber and plastic rats slapping into the ice, Panthers players giving randomly selected spectators the jerseys right off their backs, and fans standing in appreciation of the most dominating season they’ve seen down here.

This team is better than the 2012 squad that last made the playoffs and won its division. It is better than the exciting 2000 team led by NHL goal-scoring leader Pavel Bure — the last Panthers team before this one to win more games than it lost. And, yes, it is better than the Cinderella Rat-Cats who somehow skated into the Stanley Cup Finals in ever-distant 1996.

That’s by my eye. But the evidence is more than empirical.

These Cats set the franchise record for most victories and were the first to top 100 standings points.

Said Gallant, savoring the number: “103 points. If I’d have told you that in training camp I think you would have laughed.”

His team also set club records with a 12-game overall winning streak, a seven-game home streak, a six-game road streak and four all-star representatives.

And this was the first Florida team, so deep, so lethal, to sport five 50-point scorers — led by Jaromir Jagr, whose team-leading 66 points at age 44 is one of the great stories in all of sports, not just hockey. (This also was the first Cats team to have four 25-goal scorers.)

What a roster general manager Dale Tallon has built! Such a smart blend of savvy and guile leavened by rising, next-gen stars.

This team’s leading scorer (20-yearp-old Sasha Barkov with 28 goals) was not yet born when its second-leading scorer (Jagr, 27) first entered the league. Has any team, ever, been able to say such a crazy thing?

This is big, this greatest-team-in-franchise-history stuff. Look around.

The Dolphins likely will forever be haunted by and in futile pursuit of the perfect ghost of 1972. Can any future Heat championship surpass the national attention and buzz of the back-to-backs led by LeBron James and the Big 3? There certainly is no assurance the Marlins or Hurricanes football ever will win it all again.

These Panthers are right there, though. They have the talent to go wrest that crown that always has been embodied and claimed by the flying rats of ’96.

One of the club’s marketing themes for this postseason is #HistoryStartsNow.

The hashtag is a bit vague but somehow accurate.

Because if this team is to make history as the best this franchise has ever put on the ice, the proving is about to begin.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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