SUNRISE, Fla. — No sooner had the final horn sounded on the night the Florida Panthers clinched their first-ever division title that the plastic rats starting raining from the stands at BankAtlantic Center.
There also were a few rats tossed onto the ice Friday night after each of the Panthers' two goals in their 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
It was shades of 1996.
The whole season, to an extent, has been like a trip back in time for the Panthers — and it goes way beyond the plastic rats.
The most obvious parallel between the 1996 and 2012 Panthers is their ability to reach the playoffs with a group of players who came from other teams and weren't expected to experience much success.
The 1996 Panthers were made up mostly of players who had been acquired three years earlier via the expansion draft. The 2012 Panthers featured more than a dozen newcomers, the result of general manager Dale Tallon deciding to overhaul the roster to get his rebuilding project heading in the right direction.
Both teams featured a first-year NHL head coach, Doug MacLean in 1996 and Kevin Dineen this year.
And, finally, both teams included a rookie defenseman who was a high pick in the draft, Ed Jovanovski in 1996 and Erik Gudbranson this year.
Jovanovski returned to the Panthers this year and he can see the similarities between both teams, even though he's more concerned these days with dealing with New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"There's countless people who thought we're supposed to be done right now," Jovanovski said. "I guess you can say the same on the ‘96 team. No one really gave us a chance. I kind of like being in that role. It is what it is. We know what we can do in here if we're playing well. That's all that matters is trusting in your teammates and knowing you have that ability to get it done. For our group, that's what we rely on, each other."
Jovanovski is but one link this year's Panthers have to that 1996 team that made a magical playoff run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, beating Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before being swept by Colorado in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Gord Murphy, a defenseman on the 1996 team, is an assistant on Dineen's coaching staff; Brian Skrudland, the captain of the 1996 team, is now the team's director of player development; and Bill Lindsay, a forward on the 1996 team, is now the team's television analyst.
When Murphy and Skrudland both were hired in July of 2010, Tallon said, "We wanted to bring back the sense of family, the sense of history and tradition from earlier Panthers days."
Lindsay scored the most famous goal in franchise history when he skated around Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque and beat Bill Ranford while falling to the ice for the game-winner in the Panthers' Game 5 first-round series clincher against the Bruins in 1996.
A picture of that goal has been hanging at BankAtlantic Center in the Panthers' Den of Honor, which was unveiled in March of 2010.
This year's team also figures to have a place in the Den of Honor before too long, and Lindsay is hoping the 2012 Panthers can have a long postseason run of their own.
"You can draw a lot of parallels between those two teams," Lindsay said. "We'll have to see how it plays out. But it's been a long time. I'm incredibly happy for this group and what they've been able to do and move forward. Hopefully they can get some of their own memories and start the tip of this iceberg going the right way and hopefully this is just the sign of many good years to come.
"Both teams really had no stars. It's a group that's going to have to get it done as a team. It's going to be that four lines, six defensemen. That's what we had in '96. I think the similarities from that standpoint are very alike. They have some talent, but they're going to have to get it done as a group. They've worked hard all season long, that's the only way to get there and that's the way we did it in ‘96."
Murphy, for his part, doesn't care to start comparing the two teams.
"This group is its own group," Murphy said. "It's got its own story lines, it's got its own blend of players, talent, leadership, personality. Obviously, it's nice to do that and look back and that was a heck of a team and a heck of a run, but these guys deserve the recognition for what they've achieved and what they're doing. I don't try and put too much kind of comparisons and similarities into it."
For a team with such a limited playoff history as the Panthers, it's almost inevitable to look back.
But there is one big difference between the two teams, one that should encourage the Panthers and their fans.
Even while they were making their run in 1996, the Panthers never looked like a team that was starting something big.
There's reason to believe that's the case with this year's Panthers. Tallon built this team for the future, stockpiling the organization with high-end prospects like first-round picks Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad and Gudbranson.
Gudbranson made a major contribution this season, but he figures to only get better and the others should start joining him in the NHL in the next couple of seasons.
"That's what's really exciting for me is the fun begins now," Tallon said. "Moving forward we didn't disrupt our future to get success early here in the present. We have a bright future ahead of us. Now we can keep adding pieces to this core that's really a good strong core now. So we're in good shape as far as the organization is concerned."
Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent