By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
SAN JOSE, Calif. – The rat sat on a skate sharpener outside the Florida Panthers' dressing room Saturday night, but no one shooed him away. This is one rat the Cats want to keep alive – or maybe bring back to life.
You might remember the rat. Back in 1995-96, the Panthers were ready to take the ice for the home opener of their third NHL season. The rat came into the dressing room at old Miami Arena, and amid the commotion, forward Scott Mellanby wound up with his hockey stick and one-timed it. The rat flew through the air, hit the wall and fell to the floor.
That was that for the rat.
Except Mellanby scored twice that night as the Panthers earned their first victory, and goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck told reporters about the "rat trick." A fan threw a rubber rat onto the ice after a goal in a subsequent home game, and then a few more followed, and then many more followed as the team got off to a surprising start under a rookie coach with an eclectic mix of characters. Rubber rats rained on the ice all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
And now, more than a decade-and-a-half later, a few rubber rats sprinkled onto the ice as the Panthers wrapped up a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. One hit a Shark. One ended up on that skate sharpener with the inscription: "VANMURPH PANTHERS WIN" – VanMurph being the handle for Murphy Burch, an airline pilot and Panthers super-fan from Cooper City, Fla., who blogs and tweets about the team. #WeSeeRATS
The Panthers are off to another surprising start under another rookie coach with another eclectic mix of characters. They're the biggest surprise south of Minnesota – 14-8-4 and leading the Southeast Division by five points.
It's early. Still, that's saying something. The Panthers haven't been in first place in their division this late in a season since March 10, 2000. They haven't made the playoffs since 1999-2000. Their drought is the longest in the league.
"It's nice to see that," said defenseman Brian Campbell. "That's awesome. Hopefully we're starting to build something here and putting this team back on the map a little bit."
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The Panthers' slogan this season is "We see red," because they have changed their uniforms to resemble their original look. The home jerseys are red with the leaping-cat logo, and they were on display at an unusual press conference July 8.
The team introduced nine new players that day.
General manager Dale Tallon dismantled the roster before the trade deadline last season, unloading cumbersome contracts and clearing salary-cap space, tearing the team down so he could build it back up as he had once done with the Chicago Blackhawks. Among the departed were Bryan Allen,Radek Dvorak,Michael Frolik,Chris Higgins,Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman.
Tallon cleared so much cap space that his team became known as the "Floor"-ida Panthers, because they needed to spend big bucks just to reach the $48.3-million salary floor.
"We had to do what we had to do," Tallon said. "Our biggest fear was maybe not getting there."
Tallon traded for Campbell, who had five years left on the eight-year, $57-million deal Tallon had once given him as the GM in Chicago. He traded for the rights to another former 'Hawk, pending free-agent center Tomas Kopecky, and signed him to a four-year, $12-million deal.
When the free-agent market opened July 1, Tallon went on a shopping spree. He signed seven players that day: Sean Bergenheim,Tomas Fleischmann,Marcel Goc,Ed Jovanovski,Jose Theodore,Scottie Upshall,Nolan Yonkman. He acquired another in a trade: Kris Versteeg. The next day, he signed another: Matt Bradley.
Some of the money was amazing. Four years and $18 million for Fleischmann, who had scored more than 20 goals only once in his career and suffered pulmonary emboli last season. Four years and $16.5 million for Jovanovski, who had just turned 35. Four years and $14 million for Upshall, who had just cracked 20 goals for the first time. Four years and $11 million for Bergenheim, who had just scored nine goals in 16 playoff games for the Tampa Bay Lightning but had never scored more than 15 in a regular season. Two years and $3 million for Theodore, who had gone from winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player with the Montreal Canadiens in 2001-02 to fighting for a backup goalie job with the Minnesota Wild.
Goaltender Tomas Vokoun left as a free agent and signed with the Washington Capitals for only one year at $1.5 million – the same cap hit as Theodore's – but only because he was taking a discount to go somewhere he thought he could win.
The Panthers seemed bound for the floor in more ways than one – the salary floor and the standings floor. How were all these disparate parts going to fit together under new coach Kevin Dineen, who had played in the NHL for 19 seasons and coached in the AHL for six more? How were these guys going to become a team?
Center Stephen Weiss wasn't worried. He had been with the Panthers since they drafted him fourth overall in 2001. At age 28, he was their longest-tenured player. He had gone through a lot of losing and seen so many teammates come and go, and he had wondered at times whether staying was the best thing for his career. But he wanted to turn things around in Florida, and now, finally, he had hope.
"I was just excited about the quality of the players we brought in and people that we brought in," Weiss said. "As for gelling and coming together, you could tell early on in camp that wasn't going to be an issue."
The Panthers didn't do any gimmicky team-building exercises – like the race-car pit-crew stuff they had done the season before. They simply played hockey and hung out together. The guys came out early to skate and get settled.
Some groups of guys knew each other. Campbell, Kopecky and Versteeg won a Stanley Cup together in Chicago. Jovanovski and Upshall played together in Phoenix. Bradley, Fleischmann and Theodore played together in Washington. That helped. It also helped that the team held training camp in Florida and left the state only once during the exhibition season, and that was an in-and-out trip to Dallas.
The Panthers didn't click right away.
"It was a tough preseason," Jovanovski said. "I think guys were trying to feel each other out, feel the system out."
Of the 20 players who dressed for the season opener, 14 hadn't been in that uniform for last season's opener. In their sixth and seventh regular-season games, they suffered back-to-back 3-0 losses to the Capitals and Buffalo Sabres.
"We went into Washington one night, and we just got killed," Campbell said. "Buffalo killed us. They were just all over us, and we were standing around and watching these guys."
But gradually the Panthers began to believe they could play with anybody – and beat anybody. From Oct. 22 through Nov. 23, they went 9-3-3.
The past two games, they have given up a goal in the first two minutes. Against Los Angeles, they came back and peppered the Kings with 42 shots in a 2-1 loss. Against San Jose, they came back and won.
"I think there's really a lot of belief in our locker room right now," Dineen said.
Turns out, as much as Tallon was looking for speed and skill, as much as he was trying to reach the floor, Tallon was searching for character as he reconstructed his roster.
"You never know what you're going to get as far as personalities," Tallon said. "But this team seems to be really close already – really liking each other and respecting each other and playing hard for each other."
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Suddenly the Panthers have a dynamic top line. Versteeg, the left winger, who bounced from Chicago to Toronto to Philadelphia to Florida, has recovered from double-hernia surgery and is tied for seventh in the NHL scoring race with 28 points. Fleischmann has recovered from his health issues and is tied for 10th in the league with 27 points. Weiss is tied for 15th with 26. The trio is a combined plus-41.
But the Panthers have gotten offense from the back end, too. Campbell's 20 points rank second among defensemen. Jason Garrison, who had scored seven goals in his career entering the season, leads all defensemen with eight goals.
In net, Theodore has outplayed his predecessor. He is 10-5-3 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Vokoun is 10-7-0 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
And there is more depth than might appear on paper. The Panthers have kept winning despite injuries. Samuelsson (abdomen) has yet to play since arriving in the trade. Upshall (hip) has missed 11 games and counting. Bradley (upper body) and Goc (upper body) have missed nine games and counting.
"I'm excited to see this team come together as a group when they're all healthy and see where it goes," Tallon said. "But right now I'm more than pleased."
Pleased. Not satisfied. The word multiple Panthers used to describe their start was "decent" – a bland, humble word that acknowledges how far they have come but also how far they have to go, a word that implies higher standards.
The Panthers have a tough stretch ahead. After a four-game road trip that took them to Tampa Bay, Carolina, L.A. and San Jose, they flew home Sunday and host a division game Monday night against the second-place Capitals. Then they go right back on the road to Boston, Buffalo and finally New York to face the Rangers.
And they know when people think of the Panthers' past, they don't see the rat and think of the Stanley Cup final. They see the long playoff drought and think of … nothing.
"I think we're still fairly connected to our past," Dineen said. "We're still in that manner of earning respect, and I think that's justified. I think you have to go out there and you have to prove this in the long run. We're not even at the halfway pole yet, so there's still a lot of hockey to play."
At what point will they have earned respect?
"The day that we get in the playoffs, I think, will be the day," Dineen said.
Yes, they see playoffs.