Florida Panthers’ Top 10 moments of 2014-15 season
There was a lot to like about the Florida Panthers this season.
After spending nearly a decade in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, the Panthers finished the regular season with 90-plus points for just the third time in the last 14 seasons and remained in the playoff hunt into early April.
Once seen as the NHL’s island of misfit toys, the Panthers now boast two future Hall of Famers in Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo while also possessing some of the league’s best young talent and a premier prospect pool.
Whether it was the historic season of rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad or Florida’s surprising 25-point turnaround from a year ago, the Panthers gave their fans a reason to tune in every game.
That being said, here are the top-10 moments from the Panthers’ 2014-15 season…
10. PANTHERS UNVEIL NEW-LOOK POWER PLAY
Entering the All-Star break, Florida’s power play was without a doubt the its most glaring weakness. The Panthers ranked 29th in the league with the extra attacker, and unlike other areas of their game it wasn’t getting any better. Hoping to remedy the situation, coach Gerard Gallant was forced to literally go back to the drawing board and design a completely new plan of attack. Upon their return from the break, Gallant unveiled a revamped power play that sported four forwards instead of the traditional three and the rest, as they say, is history. For the first time all season, the Panthers notched multiple power-play goals in a game, going 3-for-8 with the extra attacker in a 5-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 27. With their new system in place, the Panthers converted nearly 19 percent of their power-play chances from that point on.
9. DAN ELLIS KEEPS FLORIDA’S PLAYOFF HOPES ALIVE
When both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya went down with injuries, the Panthers found an unlikely hero in third-string goaltender Dan Ellis. Exiled to the minors after earning a 4.81 goals-against average in six appearances with the Panthers last season, the 34-year-old journeyman quickly went from goat to hero in his return to Florida. Tasked with keeping the Panthers alive in an already heated wild card race, Ellis posted a 4-3-1 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He allowed two-or-fewer goals in four of his eight starts and registered a 27-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 14. An unrestricted free agent this offseason, Ellis pointed out earlier in the year that if he could lose his job in 20 games then there’s no reason he couldn’t win it back just as easily in the same amount of time. Although he played in only eight contests with the Panthers this season, it’s safe to say that his stellar performance may earn him a job somewhere this summer.
8. ROBERTO LUONGO RETURNS TO VANCOUVER
From Willie Mitchell to Shawn Thornton, the Panthers’ road trips this season often featured at least one emotional homecoming. After a tumultuous eight-year career with the Canucks, however, Luongo’s return to Vancouver stands out among the rest. In his time with the Canucks, Luongo won at least 30 games six times — and 40 or more twice — before a surprising trade sent him back to Florida last March after multiple goalie controversies eroded his relationship with the organization. In his return, the 36-year-old netminder stopped 32 shots to lead the Panthers to a 3-1 victory over his former team in an emotional night in Vancouver on Jan. 8. The victory not only put Luongo in a tie with Dominik Hasek for 11th on the all-time goalie wins list, but also gave him at least one victory against all 30 NHL teams.
7. AARON EKBLAD AND ROBERTO LUONGO NAMED TO 2015 ALL-STAR GAME
For the first time since 2009, the Panthers sent two players to the NHL’s All-Star Weekend as Ekblad and Luongo each earned a trip to Columbus to participate in the event. Luongo, playing in his fourth All-Star Game, stopped 13 of 17 shots in one period of play to help lead Team Toews to a 17-12 victory over Team Foligno. Originally invited to participate only in the rookie skills competition, Ekblad was a late addition to the All-Star Game roster after injuries forced Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson to bow out of the event. The youngest player on the ice, Ekblad led all defenseman in points with four assists while also tying the franchise record for most points in an All-Star Game. Not bad for an 18-year-old kid.
6. PANTEHRS MAKE HEADLINES WITH "GOAL OF A LIFETIME" CONTEST
Following a rare sequence of events in which both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya suffered successive injuries in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3, the Panthers held a unique promotion to find a honorary backup goaltender if the situation ever happened again. The contest, called "Goal of a Lifetime", received over 1,500 applications from all over the world as hockey fans eagerly jumped at the opportunity to live their dream. In the end, 34-year-old Bill Ruggiero and 27-year-old Dustin Smith were both named Panthers emergency goaltenders after ultimately playing to a tie in the final shootout competition. The following day, both Ruggiero and Smith signed one-day contracts and joined the Panthers for practice.
5. WILLIE MITCHELL NAMED CAPTAIN OF PANTHERS
Following the buyout of defenseman Ed Jovanovski, the Panthers entered the offseason in search of a captain. Rather than promoting from within, the team turned to newcomer Willie Mitchell to lead the upstart Panthers both on and off the ice. Mitchell, who signed a two-year deal with Florida last summer, brought 795 games of experience to the table but had only briefly served as a captain during his 13-year NHL career. In his first season wearing the "C" in Sunrise, however, Mitchell’s impeccable character and Stanley Cup pedigree echoed throughout the locker room as the 37-year-old defenseman managed to hold the attention and earn the respect of a team already full of leaders.
4. AARON EKBLAD SCORES FIRST NHL GOAL
It didn’t take long for the hockey world to realize that there was something special about Florida’s fresh-faced rookie. Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, entered his first professional season buried under a mountain of expectations and somehow managed to surpass them all. Throughout training camp, the then-18-year-old would often speak of the milestones that laid ahead of him, and in his ninth-career NHL game, he checked a big one off his list. Already logging more than 21 minutes per game, Ekblad scored the first of 12 goals that he would go on to net during his Calder-worthy season in a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 1. The goal would prove to be the game winner and Ekblad would go on to finish his rookie season with a franchise-record 39 points.
3. NICK BJUGSTAD SIGNS SIX-YEAR CONTRACT EXTENSION
The Panthers locked up a big piece of their future — literally — when they signed 6-foot-6 centerman Nick Bjugstad to a six-year, $24.6 million contract extension on Dec. 31. Bjugstad, 22, led the Panthers in scoring as a rookie last season and possesses a rare blend of both size and offensive ability. With that in mind, the Panthers saw little risk in inking the former first-round pick to an affordable long-term deal rather potentially seeing his value skyrocket over the course of a bridge contract. A former standout at the University of Minnesota, the Panthers view Bjugstad as a cornerstone of the franchise and hope that he’ll provide a formidable one-two punch up the middle with 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov for many years to come. Prior to undergoing season-ending back surgery, Bjugstad notched a team-best 24 goals in 72 games.
2. PANTHERS ACQUIRE JAROMIR JAGR AT TRADE DEADLINE
After several years of trying, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was finally able to get his man when he sent a 2015 second-round draft pick and a conditional 2016 third-round pick to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Jagr on Feb. 26. After only a few games with Jagr in the lineup, it became obvious why Tallon had been pursuing the future Hall of Famer with such persistence. In 20 games with the Panthers, Jagr recorded five goals and 16 points with a plus-7 rating. His contributions, however, extended far beyond his own statistics as the 43-year-old’s wealth of experience was shared throughout the locker room and nearly every player benefited from his presence — most notably Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. With Jagr on their line, Huberdeau and Barkov combined to score 13 goals and 36 points to close out the season. As for Jagr, the 22-year veteran has found new life with the Panthers and signed a one-year contract extension on April 12 to remain in Florida.
1. PANTHERS OUTLAST CAPITALS IN HISTORIC 20-ROUND SHOOTOUT
The Panthers made history on Dec. 16 when they endured a 20-round shootout to defeat the Washington Capitals 2-1 at the BB&T Center. In a night of unbridled intensity, the Panthers were down to their last shot five times in the shootout — and each time they answered back to keep the game alive. In all, the Panthers converted on 6-of-20 attempts in the skills competition with goals from Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Derek MacKenzie, Sean Bergenheim, Dylan Olsen and Nick Bjugstad, who scored the game-winning goal in the 20th frame. In victory, the Panthers broke the previous record for the longest shootout in NHL history set when Marek Malik beat Olaf Kolzig to give the New York Rangers a victory over the Capitals in 15 rounds on Nov. 26, 2005. The Panthers may have fallen short of the playoffs, but through this one spectacular event, they earned a place in the annals of NHL history.