Root, root, root: Panthers giving hometown fans something to cheer about
SUNRISE, Fla. — Throughout their history, the Florida Panthers’ home-ice advantage has typically pertained to the benefits of life away from the arena.
This season, however, the allure of sandy beaches and beautiful weather have taken a back seat to the Panthers’ on-ice prowess, as the BB&T Center has suddenly become one of the more unforgiving places for opponents to visit in the NHL.
Following Wednesday’s loss to the New York Rangers, the Panthers have notched points in eight of their past nine games (6-1-2) at home. They’re 9-5-3 overall at home this season and have lost just two games in regulation in Sunrise since Nov. 24.
Shaking off an early 0-2 start within their own friendly confines this season, the Panthers recorded just one regulation loss at home against stiff competition in December.
"We struggled early at home this year," Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said after Tuesday’s morning skate. "We played real well, that kept us going on the road. It’s exciting to be home, and we’ve played some exciting games at home lately. We’re starting to create a buzz, which is always nice."
Stealing a point against the Montreal Canadiens in a 2-1 shootout loss Tuesday, the Panthers tied their franchise home regulation unbeaten streak record of eight games, marking the second time Florida has accomplished the feat. The original record was set Nov. 5-26, 1995, when the team went 7-0-1.
"It’s huge to come back and play well at home," defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. "This is our barn and you have to be able to take care of business here. Being a road team is extremely is important, but everyone you come back here you need to feel comfortable, you need to put a good show on for your fans."
In recent weeks, it’s hard to say that any South Florida team has been putting on a better show than the Panthers. The team is not only winning, but also doing it in dramatic fashion nearly every night.
From an historic 20-round shootout victory over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 16 to a 6-4 comeback victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 28, the Panthers have been making sure that fans get their moneys worth.
The team is making waves, and people are starting to take notice.
"I just think we’re focused on that if we win — whether it’s home, road or anywhere — we’re playing the right way," Panthers captain Willie Mitchell said. "Playing an exciting game, being in every game and people are starting to recognize it."
For Mitchell, the effects of Florida’s success are evident whenever he steps out of the door. In his first season with the Panthers, the 37-year-old defenseman couldn’t help but crack a smile when admitting that he’s starting to get recognized around the downtown Fort Lauderdale area.
Once simply faces among the crowd, the Panthers’ sustained success at home has given players such as Mitchell an identity among a traditionally fickle South Florida fan base.
These faces now have names, and fans are showing their support.
"I think there’s been hockey fans here, there just hasn’t been a competitive team," Mitchell said. "I think when we’re being competitive people take are starting to take notice. They’re seeing that we’re in the thick of things, we’re playing the right way and we give and honest effort every night. When people see that, they want to support you.
"I think it’s been growing every game."
Now, the Panthers, who are 7-5-6 on the road, will attempt to bring some of their home-ice magic with them as they embark on a six-game road trip that begins Friday in Buffalo.
"They’re all big games," Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said. "That’s how you make the playoffs. You have to play the same way whether you’re at home or on the road."