Best Florida Panthers team ever? Proof starts now, in playoffs, vs. big brother Tampa Bay | Opinion

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The Florida Panthers team on the ice right now is the best in the 27 seasons since the NHL dared to put a hockey team in the tropics. It might not even be close.

Now they must prove it in a best-of-7 playoff series vs. the defending champion and bitter rival Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s all. A mountainous climb is where the proving starts.

A brutal stage for what to expect was set Saturday night in the Panthers’ 5-1 win over Tampa, a fist-flying slugfest that saw 31 penalties totaling 154 minutes in the box, including 10 misconducts and four fighting majors.

“Old-time hockey,” Florida coach Joel Quenneville called it.

“I loved everything about it,” said goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Left wing and leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau wore a bloody gash on the bridge of his nose as a badge after the game.

“It was physical. We don’t mind that,” Huberdeau said. “We’re going to match that.”

Monday night the Cats closed the regular season with another convincing win over Tampa, 4-0, to earn home-ice advantage in the first round.

But what did it mean, really? It all starts now.

You see with the eye how good these Panthers are. If you need to quantify it, the Cats after Monday night have won nearly 70 percent (.697) of all the standings points available to them — best by a lot in franchise history.

By comparison, the 1996 Panthers, the only iteration to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, won a .561 points share, only eighth-best in club history. That team was scrappy and fun and made even South Florida hockey agnostics fall in love for a minute as the rubber rats few and a roster of overachievers played the role of Cinderella on skates.

Midnight struck hard. As if to underline that the ‘96 Cats were a blue-collar bunch that didn’t seem cut out to be champions, they got swept 4-0 in the Finals by Colorado.

No disrespect meant to that team, but the far-more-talented 2021 Panthers would overwhelm it in every way.

I was at the old Miami Arena that night of the fourth and final game in ’96. Seared in my mind is the gift of a memory: The sold-out crowd giving a lasting, loving, deafening roar of appreciation to their little team that could. A young franchise and its fans were just happy to be there.

Not now.

Twenty-five years after that franchise peak, today’s Cats must demonstrate they are the best in franchise history by the only measure that matters: Not only getting to the Finals but winning the Stanley Cup.

And how exquisitely perfect that the Panthers must go through Tampa Bay to get there.

The Lightning entered the NHL one year ahead of the Cats and have played big brother in every way. Tampa has reached 13 postseasons and three Finals, winning it all in 2004 and again last season. Florida is headed to only its seventh playoffs and hasn’t come close to reaching the Finals — or even won a first-round playoff series — since ’96.

It is time.

Quenneville, a three-time champion coach in Chicago, is the right man, his hiring the last great stroke by sacked general manager Dale Tallon, whose replacement, Bill Zito, has majorly refashioned the roster.

Twenty-three of 39 players on the full roster are in their first season with the club. And 23 of 39 are ages 25 and younger. This is a Panthers team built to last.

Finally, young-veteran longtime Panthers such as Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and injured Aaron Ekblad were surrounded this season by talent.

The Panthers-Lightning series starting this week feels like a championship round, not an opening one.

If it goes the distance the rivals will have faced each other nine games in a row.

“There’s no secrets,” as Tampa coach Jon Cooper puts it.

Florida held a 4-2-1 advantage in regular-season meetings entering Monday night, but now must prove it all over again.

The state rivals have never met in the playoffs, because this season was shortened related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with first-round pairings with divisions rather than with a conference format. It so happens league powers Carolina, Florida and Tampa all are in the one-year-only Central Division.

“Rivalries are formed by what happens in the playoffs,” says Quenneville. “So this will be a real jump start in that direction.”

The bad blood between the Florida teams is palpable as is, but the playoffs adds rocket fuel.

“It’s funny,” said Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn. “You go through all of the regular season and then all of a sudden you flip a switch and it’s playoff hockey. It turns into a man’s league.”

It is easy for me to call this the best Panthers team in club history.

The time for the men to show it starts now.

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