In Florida, there's an expectation to win big - finally
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Here's an example of how far Florida has come: At a game late last season, the Panthers were penalized twice because their home fans were overly exuberant.
That wasn't possible a couple years ago.
The Panthers were one of the NHL's surprises last year, winning the Atlantic Division - only two years after finishing a staggering 51 points back in the division race - and putting together the best regular season in franchise history. Now they have the look of a full-fledged contender, with expectations higher than they've been in two decades.
''We achieved a lot of goals,'' Panthers forward Reilly Smith said. ''Making the playoffs was a big goal for us. Finishing first in our division was another big goal. There's still that big one at the end of the tunnel that we didn't come close enough to, but we'd like to get back there and we definitely have enough skill in our dressing room to get us back to that point.''
The Panthers expect to have a lot of that skill in Florida colors for years to come.
Florida has no fewer than 10 players under contract for at least the next four seasons, including its young core - Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck and Smith. The Panthers also added defenseman Keith Yandle in the offseason, part of some big changes on the blue line, and got goaltender Roberto Luongo a very strong backup in James Reimer.
And of course, the Panthers still have Jaromir Jagr.
He led the team in scoring last season, at the age of 44. He enters this season 20 points away from passing Mark Messier for No. 2 on the NHL's all-time list - behind only Wayne Gretzky, who is still about 1,000 points ahead of anyone else.
Jagr thinks it was a very positive sign for the Panthers to keep their core intact, and thinks the chemistry in Florida's dressing room is a big reason why success should be expected this season.
''It's not about three forwards and two defense,'' Jagr said. ''It's about five guys just working together. Forwards have to play defense, defense has to play forward. That's just the style of hockey now. Everyone has to know how to play everything. Defense has to help the forwards and the other way around.''
Here's some things to know about the Panthers going into this season:
The Panthers were streaky last season, both good and bad. Florida had a 12-game winning streak, two five-game win streaks and one other stretch of four wins in a row. There also were losing streaks of four and five games. The roller-coaster ride worked out, though the Panthers believe there's too much talent for a reprise of any long droughts this season.
CATS ARE COMING
There were two games in November last year when Florida failed to draw even 11,000 people into its building, a common problem over the last couple decades. But as the playoffs neared, the Panthers were a big ticket - their last eight regular-season games all drew more than 15,000, with four of those getting crowds of over 18,000. And the game against New Jersey on March 31 was the one where Florida fans got their team penalized twice by throwing toy rats onto the ice in the third period.
Trocheck got tripped with 68 seconds left in Game 6 of Florida's first-round series with the New York Islanders, on a play where he had an empty net and a golden chance of wrapping up a trip to a Game 7 at home. Instead, the Islanders tied the game seconds later, then prevailed in double overtime to end Florida's season. ''Still hurts,'' Smith said.
An area where Florida can improve this season is special teams. Florida's power play ranked 23rd in the 30-team NHL last season, and its penalty kill unit was 24th.
Three years ago, sportsbooks in Las Vegas listed the Panthers as a 150-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup - by far the longest in the league at that time. Entering this season, they're listed at 20-1.