Anyone who has been all-in on the Florida Panthers for the last quarter-century remains fixated on that stupid clearing pass in Game 3 of the 1997 playoffs by Jody Hull in Madison Square Garden that was knocked down by New York Rangers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and deposited in the back of the Panthers net.
You remember, right? The Eastern Conference quarterfinal series changed then. The karma changed then. The Panthers went dark then.
And now they’re back.
Let me repeat that.
THEY’RE BACK, BABY!
Well, maybe. Possibly. And, maybe, possibly it’s just overreaction fueled by a good first month and a quarter-century of hope against history that hockey is relevant in town again. But look at the Central Division standings after one month:
1. Tampa Bay Lightning. 19 points.
2. Florida Panthers. 16 points.
On Thursday, they start a three-game series against, Tampa Bay to answer the big question, too. No, the question isn’t: Did baseball take over hockey’s schedule-making? The question is whether this start is a tease, a fluke — a nice run but nothing to start throwing rats about.
Tampa is a good measure, too. It’s the rich cousin you’re jealous of these days. Look at their past sports year. It won the Super Bowl. It won the Stanley Cup. It lost in the World Series just to keep everyone humble. The only way Tampa could have more fun is for Tom Brady to skate with the Lightning on Thursday.
And now the champs come to town Thursday to explain this Panthers start. Florida had a chance to win 20 points through their first 10 games. They got 16. The only thing that’s stopped their first-month rampage is the pandemic that postponed four games.
So what’s different from last year — from most years, really?
“I think in course of game there’s a little more enthusiasm in our team game,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think we play faster, a little harder, more purpose across the board. The team has going into games — whether it’s a belief, whether it’s attitude, whether it’s doing things the right way or harder to play against — it’s all the things we talk about.
“I think they’re improved. And I think we got some depth. There’s a number of guys pushing to get in the lineup or trying to stay in the lineup. I think that can be healthy. We’ve got to manage that so it remains.”
Here’s what you heard: Enthusiasm. Purpose. Belief. Attitude.
All better. All important intangibles.
Here’s what you didn’t hear: Tangibles. More goals scored. Less goals against. Better goal-tending. Better special teams.
You didn’t hear anything about the tangibles because, really, no single number explains this except a 6-2 record in one-goal games (including overtimes). Their goal-scoring is down about half-a-goal a game — but that’s reflected a change in tempo, as seen by goals-against being down from a third-worst 3.25 a game last year to this month’s 22nd-ranked 2.65.
So the defense has tightened up headlined by the goaltending, right? Well, hmm. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky had his first good game in a while in Tuesday’s 2-1 win against Detroit. He still ranks 44th in the league with a 3.07 goals-against-average. Meanwhile, reserve Chris Dreidger’s 1.99 goals-against is 11th in the league.
Translation: It’s too early for conclusions, but not too early for the pitter-patter of hockey hope. No matter if their schedule has been heavy with low-hanging teams like Nashville, Chicago, and Detroit. They’ve been lumped in such groups for years.
“I just think when we are in these kind of games, we’re comfortable,” Quenneville said of Tuesday’s one-goal win. “You’re comfortable on the ice, trusting everybody and everybody gets a turn and they are getting the job done as well. We can learn from these games.”
Now comes Tampa Bay to decide just what this good first month means for the Panthers. Three games. Three litmus tests. Three nights to measure if it’s too soon to conclude this franchise had a good first month or such a good first month to say big things are ahead.
They’re back. Maybe. Possibly. Stay tuned.