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Former Panthers hope for happy anniversary

Stanley Cup Finalists of 1996 like present team's chances

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

NHL Live: '96 Panthers look back

Take a look back at the '96 Panthers

NHL Live reminisces about the 1996 Florida Panthers and their unprecedented playoff run with former coach and Sportsnet Analyst Doug MacLean

  • 03:50 •

SUNRISE, Fla. -- When the Florida Panthers face the Philadelphia Flyers at BB&T Center on Saturday, they will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the 1995-96 Stanley Cup Final team.

Most of the members of the 1995-96 Panthers, who made an improbable run through the Eastern Conference before losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the Final, are expected to be in attendance, along with former president Bill Torrey, former general manager Bryan Murray and former coach Doug MacLean.

While sharing memories about that memorable spring two decades ago, the 1995-96 Panthers will be watching a 2015-16 Florida team which they believe could repeat their feat of 20 years ago, and maybe go one step further.

"We did not win," said Brian Skrudland, who was the Panthers' first captain, from 1993-97. "And it's still one of those things where to a man everybody at this reunion this weekend, I guarantee you to a man, we would like nothing more than for this group here this year or in the very near future for a team to win. Because I don't think there may be another sports franchise out there that's talked about a losing team as much as the Florida Panthers have for 20 years.

"So it would be awful nice for this group to sort of let us go and ride off into the sunset and then make their own mark with their Kevin Spacey T-shirts or whatever they're doing down there right now."

In 1996 the Panthers beat the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins en route to the Final, but those are the only postseason series wins in franchise history.

Since then the Panthers lost in the first round of the playoffs three times, losing in five games to the New York Rangers in 1997; were swept by the New Jersey Devils in 2000; and lost a double-overtime Game 7 against the Devils in 2012.

Skrudland and his former teammates are confident the current Panthers will end that drought. Former goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who played a key role in the Panthers' playoff success 20 years ago, doesn't dismiss the idea of a deep run in the playoffs.

"Why not?" said Vanbiesbrouck, now general manager and director of hockey operations for Muskegon of the United States Hockey League. "I think they have a lot of parts. Nobody talks much about some of the depth they have. I think the lineup is as blended as any I've seen. They've got depth. No reason they can't go deep.

"The other part too is the job that [coach] Gerard Gallant has done with that team is amazing. I give him a lot of credit."

Defenseman Ed Jovanovski was the first pick of the 1994 NHL Draft and played 70 games as a 19-year-old rookie in 1995-96 and another 22 in the 1996 playoffs. His 18-season career ended in 2013-14 after three final seasons with the Panthers following stints with the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes. He played with some of the young stars on the current Panthers, including forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson.

That gives him a different perspective than his 1995-96 teammates.

"The care factor is there," Jovanovski said. "Just going through the seasons that we've been through, they all kind of stayed the course and sticking with their vision. It's good to see guys that I played with really enjoying the success this year. Even last year you could see them making strides in the right direction and unfortunately coming up short. But this year [they had] that spectacular 12-game [win streak], being a pretty consistent team. It's good to see the guys that I played with doing well and having fun."

Jovanovski was gone before Jaromir Jagr joined the Panthers, but he and his 1996 Stanley Cup Final teammates played against Jagr when he was a 24-year-old in his seventh season with the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.

At 44 years old, Jagr leads the 2015-16 Panthers in scoring and plays on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau.

"That's really an amazing thing," Vanbiesbrouck said. "I don't think anybody could ever in their wildest imagination think that 20 years later that Jaromir would be on the Florida Panthers and going quite well.

"It's not just that he's in the League and on a team, but he's doing exceptionally well. It's an amazing story for his longevity and perseverance and it's great for the League. … I think it's a testimony to younger players today that there were some really fantastic players back then."

With the possible exception of Vanbiesbrouck, the 1995-96 Panthers didn't have fantastic players. What they had was a group of gritty, hard-nosed veterans, many acquired via the expansion draft three years earlier.

The presence of playmakers such as Barkov, Huberdeau and Jagr is one big difference between the two teams.

"You look at our team there, other than Vanbiesbrouck, [the typical guy was] kind of a nameless player," Jovanovski said. "A lot of players that we had were obviously expansion drafted players that would come in and just wanted another opportunity to keep their careers going with a little bit of a mix of young players. The make-up of our team in Florida was kind of keep your nose to the grindstone, work hard and that'll win games.

"The team here, it's got a bunch of star players and the good thing about them is they work hard too. I played with [Barkov] one year and seeing him operate on both ends of the ice is pretty remarkable for a kid that's 20 years old. [Huberdeau] is coming into his own. Gudbranson has probably had his best year yet as a defenseman growing into his maturity level. [You can] kind of go down the list with their team. Even guys that they brought up from the minors that they've plugged in have played well. It's good to see. It's good to see Florida having a winning team in the playoffs and hopefully they can keep it up."

If they're lucky enough to watch the Panthers beat the Flyers on Saturday, the members of the 1995-96 team likely will get to enjoy a ritual that began with them: fans tossing plastic rats onto the ice.

The movement began after Scott Mellanby killed a rat before a game by shooting it against a wall and then scored two goals against the Calgary Flames. That prompted Vanbiesbrouck to say afterward that Mellanby had recorded a "rat trick."

"It's amazing what things turn into," said Mellanby, now an assistant general manager with the Montreal Canadiens. "Even as we were going along on that playoff run you never could have imagined that this many years later that people would still embrace it. Obviously the team has had its ups and downs. It's good to see the team back and having a good run this year."

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