But here they are, one point behind the eighth-seeded New York Rangers entering tonight’s tilt with the Lightning. The biggest reason why is standing behind their bench. The most impactful change for the South Floridians occurred when they named Peter DeBoer their new head coach. DeBoer came to the NHL with a solid pedigree - he found great success working for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, whom he led to a Memorial Cup in 2003. His transition to the big leagues appears to have been seamless.
Coaches often talk about ‘changing the culture’ of a team, or, in other words, transforming a losing mentality into a winning one. Frankly, it’s not the easiest task in the world. In less than a year, DeBoer has actually done it. The 2008-09 Panthers are different from the DeBoer-less versions. Now, the Panthers have become a more resilient opponent, one that never gives up on a game even if they’re down multiple goals. They better execute the small details of the game so that they are less prone to making sloppy mistakes. And lastly, the Panthers seem to have more faith in themselves, their teammates and their system; the players believe (rather than hope) that they are going to win games.
Take a look at the five games played so far this year between the Lightning and Panthers. The fact that the Panthers have picked up seven out of 10 points illustrates how they have grown as a team.
The first meeting of the year between the clubs took place on November 12 in Sunrise and the Panthers won decisively, 4-0. Six nights later, the teams played at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning stormed the Panthers throughout the game, firing a franchise record 52 shots at Tomas Vokoun. The Panthers capitalized on a couple of early power play chances and built a 3-0 lead. Vokoun’s goaltending held the Lightning to three goals of their own and then the Panthers won the game in the shootout.
Their next game took place on December 26 in Sunrise. The Lightning took a 3-1 lead into the third period. Through the first 13 minutes of the final frame, the Panthers only mustered a couple of shots. But then, Stillman converted on a power play and finally, with only 14 seconds left in the third period, McCabe tied the score during a sixth-attacker situation. The Lightning eventually prevailed in a shootout, but the Panthers, thanks to their late third period surge, found a way to get a point.
They played again the following evening at the St. Pete Times Forum and again the Lightning stormed the Panthers early, once more building a 3-1 second-period advantage. Displaying their never-say-die attitude, the Panthers netted two quickies to tie the score. The game turned back in favor of the Lightning when Vinny Lecavalier tallied in the final few seconds of the second. That goal helped propel the Bolts to a 6-4 triumph.
Their most recent matchup proved to be one of the Lightning’s most devastating losses of the year. Tampa Bay was trying to make a run to get into the playoff picture and was in the midst of a five-game homestand. The Lightning had won the first game of the homestand, a convincing 4-1 victory over Philadelphia. Like they had done in the previous game against the Panthers, the Lightning jumped out to a 3-1 lead. But five minutes into the second period, the resilient Panthers rallied. They played a fantastic 15 minutes and popped in three goals to take the lead. Despite getting outshot 13-4 in the final period, the Panthers defended well and protected the lead to the final buzzer.
It might sound as though I’m implying that the Panthers have simply gotten lucky against the Lightning and aren’t as good as their record indicates. That’s not the case. (There have been plenty of games this season when the Panthers have overwhelmed the opposition, including a 5-0 dismantling of the Hurricanes last month in Raleigh). Rather, I think the season series with the Lightning shows how good the Panthers actually are. Like all teams, there are games in which they may not click on all cylinders for a full 60 minutes. But unlike most teams, they still find ways to get points in many of those games. That is a mark of a terrific club and one that figures to maintain this level of excellence for years to come.