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While hockey may not be the first thing to pop into people’s minds when they think of Florida, there is a large group of diehard fans who root vehemently for their hometown heroes, the Florida Panthers. Based out of Sunrise, Florida, the Panthers have been forging a reputation as a tough underdog team since their first season back in 1993-94.
Joining the NHL as an expansion team, the Panthers made smart work of both the 1993 NHL Entry Draft as well as the expansion draft, bringing in many talented players who would produce for them. Additionally, the Panthers were able to bring in veteran goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck to establish a sure starter in net. Leaders in Brian Skrudland and Scott Mellanby served as role models for younger players, including Rob Niedermayer. Following their inaugural season, many in the Florida region were hopeful for the new team. Picking up Ed Jovanovski with the first overall pick in 1994 only added to the excitement. The following season was shortened by the NHL lockout, but the Panthers played well.
During the 1995-96 season, the Panthers improved drastically, eclipsing 40 wins for the first time on their way to their first NHL playoff appearance. Defying expectations, the Panthers moved past the Boston Bruins in five games, then the Philadelphia Flyers in six games, before upsetting a Mario Lemieux led Pittsburgh Penguins team in seven games to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The Cinderella run would come to an end in the fourth and final round, however, as the Panthers fell to the Colorado Avalanche in four games.
The Florida Panthers have made it back to the postseason tournament four times in the years since, and have never advanced beyond the first round. Ever-eager to try their luck again, the current squad has Bob Boughner behind the bench in the role as head coach. After spending two seasons as an assistant in San Jose, Boughner took over head coaching duties last season and put together a record of 44-30-8. He is leading the charge again and giving his team the push they need to break through to a playoff berth.
Captain Aleksander Barkov is hoping that Boughner’s coaching will bring about a transformation for this team into perennial contenders. There is no shortage of talent among the Panthers young players. In fact, their biggest point producers in Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are both under the age of 26. Another star, Vincent Trocheck, has been on IR for a good part of the season with an ankle injury. A strong defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Mark Pysyk will help out star goalie Roberto Luongo.
This young team in the midst of a transition is about to grow up quickly in the fast-paced NHL season. Fans in Florida will always have the back of the Panthers players, just as they rooted on the Panthers greats of the past including Pavel Bure, Roberto Luongo, Jaromir Jagr, John Vanbiesbrouck, Aleksander Barkov, and Olli Jokinen. For additional information about the Florida Panthers click here.