Greg Cote

Miami Heat, Florida Panthers turn rarity into playoff reality

The Miami Heat and Florida Panthers are about to both enter the playoffs in the same season for only the fifth time since 1993, when hockey joined basketball down here.
The Miami Heat and Florida Panthers are about to both enter the playoffs in the same season for only the fifth time since 1993, when hockey joined basketball down here.

Appreciate the rarity of this first.

The Miami Heat and Florida Panthers are about to both enter the playoffs in the same season for only the fifth time since 1993, when hockey joined basketball down here. And South Florida is one of only five markets to have both its teams reach the 2016 postseason, along with Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland/San Jose.

Even more notable is the similar blueprint the Heat and Panthers have shared to find success, with rosters that blend wise and wizened veterans and raw youth.

For the Heat it’s a blueprint that is very different from the company norm, showcasing an unusual reliance on young players by a franchise that, from Pat Riley on down, has never quite trusted youth.

For the Cats it’s a blueprint taken to extremes, bookended by 44-year-old leading scorer Jaromir Jagr and by 10 players not even born when Jagr first entered the NHL, such as rising stars Sasha Barkov, 20, and Aaron Ekblad, 19.

Read Next

Both teams’ uncommonly wide gulf between its oldest and youngest players was reflected perfectly Monday in the Panthers’ dressing room following a midday practice.

Florida coach Gerard Gallant meets the media as playoff week kicked off Monday in Coral Springs.

Nick Bjugstad, the Cats center, is 23 but looks even younger. His hand kept drifting absent-mindedly to his chin and rubbing what was there, which isn’t much. He is trying, the poor kid. The NHL postseason is upon us, the fight for the Stanley Cup beginning, and in hockey, the playoff beard is a near-sacred tradition.

A wisp of blond whiskers trying bravely to be a goatee and an even wispier sprout on his alabaster cheeks is all Bjugstad can claim for now.

“I keep playing with it – it’s more than I’ve ever had!” he is saying after Monday’s midday practice. “It is what it is. But it’s kind of embarrassing.”

Elsewhere around the dressing room manly playoff beards are in full bloom. It looks like a casting call for a movie about lumberjacks.

A media guy trying to be kind tells Bjugstad most of the full-bearded guys probably started growing their facial hair at least a month ago.

“So did I,” Nick had to admit.

The beard thing is the perfect reflection of what the Panthers see when they look in the mirror:

A blend of age and youth, of over-35 veterans like Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Brian Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Willie Mitchell, offset by what is perhaps hockey’s premier core of players under 25.

It was a risk that relies on aging players still having enough prime left and youthful guys proving ready. It was a chemistry experiment that has worked but might have blown up in the lab.

“Our older guys have been so willing,” as general manager Dale Tallon told me Monday. “It could have been a disaster.”

Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon talks about his team as playoff week kicked off Monday, April 11, 2016.

From the 45-minute jaunt from Sunrise down to Miami, from ice to hardwood, Heat veterans like Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and (even sidelined) Chris Bosh similarly mentor a youthful core led by rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, by second-year man Tyler Johnson and by Hassan Whiteside, who is 26 but still learning.

“I’m just passing down knowledge,” Wade describes the role that doesn’t show up on stat sheets. “All of us are where we’re at because someone before us helped.”

Read Next

It is a good time to be a fan of both teams, with each franchise locked in win-now mode but also boasting a blossoming young core that suggests a bridge to a promising future beyond the Hall of Fame-bound old guard led by Jagr and Wade.

Both teams share justifiably high playoff hopes as the Panthers face the New York Islanders in the first round with Game 1 here Thursday night, while the Heat enter their final two regular-season games still unsure of their seeding, who’ll they’ll face or whether they’ll have home-court advantage.

Read Next

You’d think the Heat might be in happy-to-be-here mode, after missing the playoffs last year and with Bosh out. Yet there is the sense of a wide-open Eastern Conference, and of a real chance to reach the East finals, maybe head-to-head vs. old friend LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.

You’d think the Panthers might really be in happy-to-be here mode. They last made the playoffs in 2012 and last won a playoff series in Year of the Rat 1996. Tallon and coach Gerard Gallant both admitted Monday they did not expect to win a division title this year. But hockey’s Eastern Conference also is wide open.

An ESPN experts panel by a 9-0 vote picked the Panthers to advance past the Islanders. Washington was the only East team with an appreciably better record than Florida this season, but the Cats were 2-1 against the Capitals, outscoring them 10-5.

The idea of a championship run by either the Panthers or especially the Heat is fanciful and not being discussed much in any sober conversation, but, in only their fifth playoffs at the same time, the idea of either team or both reaching their conference finals is tantalizingly plausible.

And who knows? If that happens, by then, Nick Bjugstad’s patchwork of whiskers might even pass for a decent beard.

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

  Comments