For fans of the Florida Panthers, by the time the NHL playoffs role around, they’re usually already thinking about next year. Next year will be the year that Dmitry Kulikov and Stephen Weiss break out. Next year our past draft classes will finally blossom. Next year we will finally make the playoffs.
However, for the first time in a long time, that year was this year. The Panthers finally made the playoffs after a record setting drought and saw the Bank Atlantic Center come to life for a hard fought seven game series against the New Jersey Devils. With that said, it only made it all the more painful when Devils’ Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique wristed a shot past Jose Theodore in the early hours of Friday morning, sending the Devils on to the second round and ending the Panthers’ season.
The Panthers had fought their way back from down 2-0, on goals from Stephen Weiss and Marcel Goc. As the third period ended, it appeared that they had completely taken not only the momentum of the game, but also the will from the Devils. However, the third period ended just in time for New Jersey, who were able to regroup and come out strong during the overtime periods.
The Cats came agonizingly close several times, as Martin Brodeur turned back the clock to come up with series saving stops against John Madden and Scottie Upshall. In the end, Theodore couldn’t match the legendary Brodeur, giving up a goal to Henrique that he likely should have stopped. Add this result to the overtime loss in New Jersey in Game 6, and the series, once so promising for the Panthers who had a 3-2 lead, could not have ended in a more heartbreaking fashion.
However, even though the Florida Panthers’ season ended on a sour note, when players and fans have time to put this into perspective, it will still be considered a resounding success. After Dale Tallon’s offseason shopping spree in which he picked up key pieces in Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg, and Brian Campbell, many pundits still predicted the Cats to be cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference. They proved those doubters wrong. This season also let fans see part of the future, as goalie Jacob Markstrom looked solid during his NHL action, and rookie Erik Gudbranson gained valuable experience and looked all the part of a dominant defenseman for years to come.
In addition, the Florida Panthers accomplished something they never had before, winning their first Southeast Division title. They made it just as far into the playoffs as the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, and Pittsburgh Penguins did. Who would’ve believed that at the beginning of this season?
Of course, with the offseason, more questions will need to be answered. Will the Cats keep players like Jason Garrison, Mikael Samuelsson, and Scott Clemmensen? Will they be able to address the desperate need to find a game breaker, perhaps in a trade? Or maybe they already have one ready to make the jump to the big club in Jonathan Huberdeau?
While these questions will have to be answered soon, Panthers fans can rest assured that the future is bright in Sunrise. The Cats have one of the deepest talent pools in the minors with players like Huberdeau, Markstrom, Nick Bjugstad, and Drew Shore, who will all soon become the core of the team. As he has shown throughout the season, Dale Tallon won’t be resting on his laurels either and will do anything he can to make this team better.
Even though the loss to the Devils stings now, this is a team that is on the rise. This season was just the first step in the Tallon “blueprint”, which is already ahead of schedule. So, yes, the Panthers’ season ended on a sour note, but only one team gets to call their season a success in the end. And, hey, there’s always next year, right?