The Florida Panthers haven’t had much playoff success in their 27-year history, but in just their third season in the NHL, they made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers were coming off a 1994-95 season where they were just one point shy from making the playoffs. Led by general manager Bryan Murray, coach Doug MacLean, captain Brian Skrudlund and the goaltending of John Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time and had the most successful season in franchise history.
The Year of the Rat
The Panthers season started the beginning of a bizarre tradition. As the story goes, there was a rat in the Panthers dressing room right before the Panthers home opener on Oct. 8, 1995, against the Calgary Flames. Forward Scott Mellanby saw it and killed it using his stick. Later he scored two goals with the same stick in a 4-3 win over the Flames. Vanbiesbrouck called Mellanby’s performance a “rat trick.”
Once the word got around to the fans, they started to throw (rubber) rats on the Miami Arena ice every time the Panthers scored. Thus, the Rat Trick tradition was born and was the symbol of the Panthers season and their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
However, the NHL killed the fun after the season. Teams were penalized with a delay of a game penalty when fans threw objects on the ice (not including hats for hat tricks). The rat throwing returned in 2012 when the Panthers played the New Jersey Devils in the first round.
The Regular Season
The Panthers opened their season with a 4-0 loss in New Jersey before winning their home opener against the Flames. Florida finished the season with a 41-31-10 record which resulted in a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division, and a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference with 92 points.
The Panthers enjoyed a seven-game winning streak from Nov. 2 to Nov. 14 and it ended thanks to a 2-2 tie with the Vancouver Canucks on the 16th. The Panthers also suffered a five-game losing streak from March 2 to March 11. It ended in a tie at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.
Mellanby (now the assistant GM of the Montreal Canadiens) led the team in scoring with 32 goals and 38 assists for 70 points. Robert Svehla led all defencemen in scoring with 8 goals and 49 assists (a stat that he led the team in). Vanbiesbrouck won 26 games and had a 2.68 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. Defenceman Ed Jovanovski was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.
The Panthers faced the Boston Bruins in the quarterfinals of the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs. The B’s were a high scoring team as they potted 282 goals in the regular season. They were led by Cam Neely who had 26 goals and Adam Oates who had 25 goals.
However, the Panthers decided to pump up the offence as well. In their first-ever playoff game, they won 6-3. They won the next two games 6-2 and 4-2 to push the Bruins to the brink of elimination. Boston won Game 4, 6-2, to stay alive but the Panthers won Game 5 in Miami thanks to Bill Lindsay’s winner with less than five minutes to go in the third period.
Up next, the Panthers faced the Philadelphia Flyers. They were led by the high scoring “Legion of Doom” line consisting of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikael Renberg. The Flyers also had strong goaltending with Ron Hextall and Garth Snow.
Vaniesbrouck’s shutout helped the Panthers to a 2-0 victory in Game 1 in Philadelphia. The Flyers won the next two games, 2-0 and 3-2. Thanks to rookie Jovanovski containing Lindros, the Panthers would win the next three games 4-3 in overtime, 2-1 in overtime, and 4-1 to advance to their first Conference Final, but they were going to face a tough opponent.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were electrified with the return of Mario Lemieux, who missed the 1994-95 season due to fatigue brought on by his radiation treatment. They led the NHL with 362 goals in the regular season, and it was a very tight series. Thanks to an impressive effort by Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers won the opening game in Pittsburgh 5-1. The Penguins answered back in Game 2 with a 3-2 win, but in Game 3 the Panthers fired 61 shots on Tom Barrasso and won 5-2.
The Penguins pushed the Panthers to the brink, winning the next two games, 2-1 and 3-0. However the Panthers won Game 6 4-3 and thanks to goals from Mike Hough, Tom Fitzgerald, and Johan Garpenlov, Florida became the fastest expansion team (at the time) to reach the Stanley Cup Final. This was also the last time the Panthers won a playoff series.
The Final: The Magic Ends
For the first time, the Stanley Cup Final would be played between two teams where that were in their first appearance in the Final. The Colorado Avalanche were playing in their first season in the Mile High State as they had moved from Quebec City the previous year. The Avs had the likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, and Patrick Roy.
In Game 1, despite scoring the opening goal, the Panthers lost 3-1. In Game 2, the Panthers were humiliated 8-1. Forsberg scored a hat trick while Rene Corbert and Jon Klemm each scored twice. Stu Barnes had the only Panthers goal.
Game 3 was much closer. Claude Lemieux returned to the Colorado lineup after receiving a two-game suspension. The Panthers had the lead after one period but early in the second it was tied thanks to Mike Keane, and Joe Sakic scored the eventual winner 82 seconds later and the game ended 3-2. The Panthers were down 3-0 in the series but were poised to live another day.
Game 4 was tight. The Panthers were playing well defensively and Vanbiesbrouck and Roy were having a goaltending duel. Finally, after more than 100 minutes of scoreless hockey, Colorado’s Uwe Krupp scored the triple-overtime winner and the Avalanche were Stanley Cup champions in their first season in Colorado.
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It didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but the Panthers had their best season in franchise history and had an underdog run at the Stanley Cup Final. Panthers were fans were proud of the team and no doubt want them to go on another run. Hopefully, they won’t come home empty-handed this time.
Live in Vancouver but write about the Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers. Also write about the Canucks on The Canuck Way and am the host of The Avid Discussers Podcast.