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Playoff Season

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
The Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and for the fourth time in franchise history (Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s fitting that Panthers fans have celebrated home victories this season by throwing rats onto the ice.

There really is something about this year’s Panthers squad that brings everyone back to 1996, to a magical season when a group of players from various teams came together and achieved something that didn’t seem possible.

Whereas the 2012 Panthers consisted largely of players signed as free agents or acquired via trades last summer, the 1996 edition was made up mostly of veterans who had been selected in the expansion draft a couple of years earlier.

Both teams were led by a first-year NHL head coach, Kevin Dineen this season and Doug MacLean in 1996.

And then, of course, there are the rats.

There’s another similarity this year’s Panthers probably wouldn’t mind seeing, and that’s the playoff run of the 1996 team.

Put simply, it was something special.

The Panthers may not have an extensive postseason history, but they can always look back with pride at that spring of 1996.

Florida surprised many – if not virtually everyone not affiliated or a fan of the team – by merely making the playoffs that season as a third-year franchise.

What followed in the playoffs was even more special.

The Panthers entered the 1996 playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference after finishing the regular season with a 41-31-10 record, and proceeded to beat No. 5 Boston, No. 1 seed Philadelphia and No. 2 seed Pittsburgh.

After outlasting the Penguins, who were led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, in seven games, the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

“You ask a lot of us from back then, that was pretty much the highlight of our career for the most part, unless there’s guys that won Cups somewhere else,” said Gord Murphy, who was a key defenseman on that 1996 Panthers team and is back with the organization as an assistant coach. “It was that much fun; it was that special. In the moment, you’re dealing with it and you’ve got a lot going on, but when you look back, by far, it was definitely the highlight of my career and I know it was for a lot of guys on that team.”

Only two players from that 1996 team are still active, one of them being current Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski. The other is forward Radek Dvorak, a member of the Dallas Stars.

The leading scorer in those playoffs for the Panthers was veteran left wing Dave Lowry, who had 10 goals and seven assists. Right wing Ray Sheppard and center Stu Barnes were next with 16 points apiece in those 1996 playoffs.

But the player Panthers fans might remember most is left wing Bill Lindsay. Now the Panthers’ television analyst, Lindsay scored the team’s most memorable goal of the 1996 playoffs.

Bill Lindsay scored the biggest goal in franchise history to clinch Game 5 of the Panthers first round series against Boston in 1996.
Check that, it is the most famous goal in Panthers history — by a large margin.

Sixteen years later, the image of Lindsay skating around Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, getting tripped and flicking a shot past Bruins goalie Bill Ranford while falling to the ice remains vivid. Oh, the goal also was the series-clincher in a 4-3 victory of the first round’s Game 5.

It’s there for all Panthers fans to see in the team’s Den of Honor at the BankAtlantic Center under the simple heading of “The Goal.”

“That was a special moment for our hockey team, for me personally,” Lindsay said. “They were just times that you look back on and you think, wow, that was really a special moment. And that goal ... my parents were in the stands and it was one of the first few games they actually saw me play down here in Miami. It made it special.”

Lindsay still gets asked about the goal — quite frequently, actually — and says he sees it a couple of times a year. He also has a framed picture of the famous play.

“I have the puck,” he added. “I should have kept the stick and everything that went with it. But at that time, you’re young and you’re going through it. Yeah, I wish I would have kept a lot more stuff throughout my career when I look back at it.”

What Lindsay and his teammates will always have, though, are the memories.

Like “The Goal.” Like the overtime goals by Lowry and Mike Hough that turned a 2-1 series deficit against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals into a 3-2 advantage. Like Tom Fitzgerald’s game-winning goal in the 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Like goalie John Vanbiesbrouck’s many spectacular saves.

Most of all, Murphy and Lindsay remember the camaraderie that existed on that team.

“The guys, the team, the group that we had together was unique,” Lindsay said. “There was a genuine care for each other. We had a bond among us. I think what made that team special is you weren’t playing for yourself; you were playing more for the guy beside you and to not let him down. It was really a family atmosphere. That’s what was fun. Plus, we were growing hockey down here in South Florida.”

Yes, it was disappointing that the Panthers were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Colorado Avalanche, the series ending when defenseman Uwe Krupp scored the only goal of Game 4 in the third overtime.

But that could never erase or take away what the Panthers accomplished in their first playoff appearance or how they brought along all of South Florida for a great ride.

“One of the things that sticks out was the kind of connection we had with the team and the fans and how much of an advantage that was for us down at the home games down at Miami Arena,” Murphy said. “It was an electric atmosphere, it was loud. Playing in that building and having them supporting us like that, it made all the difference in the world. It was like a sixth man. The playoffs is a grind, you’re playing every other day, the travels, you have the highs and lows. The feeling you had coming out on the ice at the start of warmups in that arena and the jerseys and the support and the way the whole South Florida (community) embraced us, it was something that made it really special and gave us an edge and an advantage.”

The Panthers would be back in the playoffs the very next season, again as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

But there would be no magical run this time, with Florida getting bounced from the first round in five games by the New York Rangers.

For a second consecutive season, the end came abruptly, this time when Esa Tikkanen’s overtime goal gave the Rangers a 3-2 victory in Game 5. It was New York’s second overtime victory in the series.

“You’re almost in shock and disbelief when it ends,” Lindsay said. “You always think it’s possible (that you could go far again). You think you had a chance. The margin for error in sports in so small and so close ... it didn’t happen.”

That 1997 conference quarterfinal series had gotten off to a great start for the Panthers, who threw a 3-0 shutout in the opener.

Little did anyone know that would be their last playoff victory in a long, long time.

After the Rangers won the next four games, the Panthers didn’t return to the playoffs until the 1999-2000 season with the “Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure, leading the way.

The Panthers were the fifth seed that season, after finishing with a franchise-best 98 points, but had the misfortune of being matched up against the New Jersey Devils in the first round.

The Devils were led by goalie Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Another member of that team was current Panthers center John Madden.

The Panthers played New Jersey tough in the first three games but dropped three straight one-goal decisions. The Devils then dominated the Panthers, 4-1, in Game 4 to complete the sweep.

New Jersey would go on to beat Toronto, Philadelphia and Dallas to win its third Stanley Cup in nine years.

Twelve years later, the Panthers have finally returned to the playoffs.

They did so in surprising fashion, much like the 1996 team.

Now it’s time to see just how far this journey will take them.
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