Florida Panthers Biggest Game in Franchise History

25 Feb 1996: Head coach Doug MacLean of the Florida Panthers during a 6-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the Aud in Buffalo, New York. Mandatory Credit: Harry Scull/ALLSPORT

Welcome back to Last Word on Hockey’s summer series where we look at the biggest game in team history. Each day we will be back with a new team to look at. Looking at things like the lead-up, what happened, followed, and why it makes it the biggest game. The biggest game does not automatically mean a win, either. Sometimes, it can be a loss that set the franchise back massively. Sit back and enjoy as we break down all 31 teams’ most important game. In this article, we will discuss the Florida Panthers biggest game in franchise history. The full series is found here.

Florida Panthers Biggest Game in Franchise History

The Florida Panthers are a relatively new franchise, with little history. Still, the franchise is not devoid of interesting stories. They’ve featured exciting stars such as Aleksander Barkov, Pavel Bure, and Roberto Luongo. They also appear to be on the verge of consistently making the playoffs. Though the Panthers are not the league’s most storied franchise, they were the star of one of the greatest Cinderella runs in history. The 1995-96 playoffs saw the Panthers make a championship bid for the ages that reached its climax during the Eastern Conference Final. The series was a hard-fought battle that culminated in the Florida Panthers biggest game in franchise history.

The Year of the Rat

The Florida Panthers entered the 1995-96 season looking to take a step forward. After their introduction to the league in 1993, the league’s newest team narrowly missed the playoffs in each of their first two seasons. They had exceeded expectations for expansion teams but had yet to breakthrough. On the home opening night of the 95-96 campaign, The Panthers received an omen from an unlikely source.

As the Panthers prepared to take on the Calgary Flames, a live rat scurried across the locker room. Scott Mellanby remembered the incident, saying “Guys were jumping out of the way and screaming. It made a beeline right towards me.” Mellanby instinctively “one-timed” the rat into a wall with his stick, and then went on to score two goals in a 4-0 victory. Later that night, goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck jokingly coined the term “rat trick” and a tradition was born. Fans began throwing plastic rats onto the ice at Panthers home games to mark the event.

In an odd coincidence, 1996 is designated on the Chinese Zodiac as the year of the Rat. And for the Florida Panthers, it would also be the year they finally broke into the NHL playoffs.

Underdogs

The Florida Panthers earned their way into the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Though they had found their way into the postseason, most did not give them much of a chance to truly contend. They lacked scoring punch, any real star power, and had little playoff experience. The Panthers did have one thing going for them though. Strong goal-tending. Long before the Panthers inked star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a deal, John Vanbiesbrouck played a prominent role in the team’s success.

Sometimes a solid presence in the net can steal games in the playoffs, and this happened for the Panthers early and often. In their opening series, the Panthers jumped out to take the first three games from the Boston Bruins despite being out-shot in every game. When they finished the Bruins off in five games, it was a feel-good story. The story was supposed to end when they took on the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers.

Once again, Vanbiesbrouck proved up to the task. The Panthers shut out the high-powered Philadelphia offence in game one. The Flyers took games two and three, forcing the Panthers’ backs against the wall. Florida dug themselves out of their hole with clutch contributions over the next three games. Dave Lowry lifted the Panthers to a game four victory with an overtime goal. Mike Hough one-upped Lowry with a double-overtime goal in game five. In the decisive game six, Vanbiesbrouck halted the Flyers last-ditch onslaught, making 34 saves on 35 shots. The Cinderella story continued and the Panthers moved on to the conference finals.

The Series

Florida met the other Pennsylvania franchise in the conference finals and just like the first two series, they found a prolific offence waiting for them. Headlined by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis, the Pittsburgh Penguins lead the regular season in goal scoring. The high-flying trio combined for 429 points. In comparison, the Florida Panthers top 8 scorers combined for 426. Some relief came in the form of Ron Francis being unable to play for Pittsburgh due to injury.

The Panthers shocked the Penguins in game one, scoring five goals. To win this series, Florida would need to continue shutting down the Pittsburgh attack. The Panthers sustained their effort, holding the Penguins to just 11 goals in the first 5 games. Pittsburgh was not scoring at their usual rate, but they also successfully shut the Panthers down. Going into game six, the Penguins held a 3-2 series lead. The Panthers had gotten this far on the back of strong performances from Vanbiesbrouck and clutch scoring, but they needed a strong showing on offence. In game six, the Panthers had their best offensive showing of the series. They poured 40 shots on Pittsburgh’s net and won the game 4-3. The Panthers were one step from an unlikely Stanley Cup berth. The contest would be the Florida Panthers biggest game they had ever played.

The Game

The Florida Panthers closed out both of their first-round series in the friendly confines of Miami Arena. They would not have the same luxury this time around, playing at the hostile Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. This served as a tall order, given the Penguins’ excellence at home. Throughout the regular season, the Penguins recorded a 32-9-0 record at home.

The Penguins came out firing, burying the Panthers’ net in scoring opportunities. The raucous crowd was silenced halfway into the first period when Mike Hough tallied the first goal of the game for the Panthers. Vanbiesbrouck and Pittsburgh goaltender Tom Barrasso turned away chance after chance through a tight-checking affair. The score remained stagnant throughout the second period. In the dying moments of the period, Gord Murphy skated to the box after being called for holding. The Penguins offence failed to breakthrough up this point, but giving them the extra attacker in a crucial situation presented a dangerous predicament.

One Last Push

The Penguins converted on their chance early in the final frame with a goal from Petr Nedved with assists from Lemieux and Jagr. More than tying the game, the goal represented a possible turning point. Up to that point, The Panthers defence stifled the Pittsburgh stars. Lemieux later paid the Panthers suffocating play a compliment, saying “It was the best defence I’ve ever played against… You’d beat one guy, and there were two others there.”

If the Penguins top talent could build upon the goal, the Panthers had little chance of keeping up. With the game even, the race to the finish began. Five minutes later the Panthers answered the Nedved goal. Tom Fitzgerald put a seemingly harmless shot on net that beat Barrasso. With the lead in hand, it was once again John Vanbiesbrouck‘s turn to play the hero. Florida’s playoff workhouse passed with flying colours, ending the game with 39 saves on 40 shots. Johan Garpenlov added an insurance goal at 17:23 of the third. The Florida Panthers had once again shocked their opponents and the hockey world.

Aftermath

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Cinderella story did have to end. The clock struck midnight when they faced off against the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup final. Like their previous competition, the Avalanche featured a prolific offence but matched it with the legendary goal-tending of Patrick Roy. Roy was unbeatable in the series allowing just four goals in a four-game sweep.

The Panthers returned to the playoffs the following season but their time as contenders had come to an end. Since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Panthers have made the playoffs just four times, and have yet to win another playoff series. The Panthers seem on the precipice of turning their fortunes around with a young strong core. Their run to the Cup in 1996 is still the high watermark for the franchise. Though they reached the final, the true climax of their year to remember came in game seven of the conference finals. The Florida Panthers’ biggest game in Franchise history.
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