Unless you have lived in south Florida for a couple of decades, you probably only considered the Florida Panthers franchise relevant once in its history: the 1995-96 season when the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals. That team, led by goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and forwards Scott Mellanby and Rob Niedermayer, was swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the Finals, but hockey was a big deal in Miami then (not any longer).
You may remember fans there throwing rubber rats on the ice every time Florida scored. How did a rat become synonymous with that 1995-96 team? On the night of the home opener, a rat scurried across the team's locker room. Mellanby reacted by one-timing the rat against the wall, killing it. That night, he scored two goals, which Vanbiesbrouck called "a rat trick." It caught on immediately and then really took off in the postseason.
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The Panthers have made the playoffs just three times since then and not won a series, last losing the conference quarterfinals in 2012. But entering Tuesday, the Panthers are atop the Atlantic Division with 50 points and are the story of the early NHL season. They were 11-3-0 in December and took a franchise-record nine-game winning streak into Tuesday's game at Buffalo, which starts a six-game road trip ( Panthers are -130 favorites). Center Dave Bolland, Florida's highest-paid forward at $5.5 million per season, will not travel with the team. He likely won't return until after the All-Star break.
Florida is the fourth team to win nine straight this season; the Capitals, Canadiens and Rangers all failed to reach 10. Florida is on pace for 105 points after ending with 91 last season.
Ageless Jaromir Jagr, 43, leads the team in goals (13) and points (28). He is just six goals away from tying Brett Hull's 741, which ranks third on the NHL's all-time list. Jagr was voted a captain by the fans for the Atlantic Division All-Star team, although Jagr has admitted he would rather spend the time off in the Bahamas. Hey, who wouldn't rather be there than Nashville in January? Before voting was finalized, Jagr joked that he'd die if he had to play the new 3-on-3 format with some of the game's biggest stars. Goalie Roberto Luongo also is having a fine season with a 17-11-3 record and 2.09 GAA. Backup Al Montoya has been even better with a 6-6-1 mark and 1.69 GAA. The team's 5-on-5 save percentage is .941, tied for the highest in the league.
Over the weekend, the Panthers gave coach Gerard Gallant a contract extension. The team's GM is Dale Tallon, who deserves a lot of credit for building the Chicago Blackhawks into the powerhouse they are now, also just got an extension.
Bovada oddsmakers haven't totally jumped on the Panthers bandwagon yet. They are +1400 to win the Stanley Cup, tied for the sixth-shortest odds. Florida is a +600 co-second favorite with Montreal to win the East.
Here are some other games to watch this week.
Pittsburgh at Chicago, Wednesday: It's a very rare home-and-home between teams not in the same conference or division. The Penguins visited Chicago on Tuesday night. This game, featuring maybe the two best all-around players in hockey in Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby, is nationally televised by the NBC Sports Network. Crosby appears to finally be on track. Entering Tuesday, Crosby has five goals and five assists in his past seven games. In his past 19 games, he has nine goals and 11 assists. By comparison, Crosby had just two goals and seven assists in his first 18 games of the season. The Hawks made a minor trade over the weekend in sending forward Jeremy Morin to Toronto for forward Richard Panik. Why mention this? It's the fourth time in five years the Hawks have either dealt or acquired Morin, who is only 24. He once was one of the team's top prospects. Chicago is now the third-favorite to win the West at +525. Pittsburgh is +1400 in the East.
Toronto at Anaheim, Wednesday: Coach Mike Babcock is starting to work wonders with this Toronto roster, which isn't very talented. The Maple Leafs are still seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division with 37 points, but they are playing much better of late in going 7-2-2 over their past 11. With 27 points in 37 games -- including a team-high 15 goals -- Leo Komarov already has one more point than his previous best for a full NHL season. Babcock, incidentally, started his NHL coaching career with the Ducks. Anaheim has won four of five and allowed just two regulation goals over that stretch, a team record. Goalie John Gibson was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month in December. He went 5-3-1 with a 1.62 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 10 appearances. First meeting between these two.
Washington at NY Islanders, Thursday: The Capitals continue to lead the East by a mile in points and the NHL in goal differential at plus-38. But they also have lost two straight entering Tuesday's game in Boston. Perhaps a natural lull following a nine-game winning streak. Goalie Braden Holtby was named the NHL's Second Star for December. He posted a 9-0-1 record with a 1.69 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage and one shutout in 11 appearances. But he gave up four goals Saturday in Columbus. The Caps remain without top defenseman John Carlson due to a lower-body injury. He might return for this game. Center Jeff Beagle will miss six weeks following hand surgery on Sunday. The 30-year-old leads all Capitals forwards in shorthanded ice-time per game and has won 58.4 percent of his faceoffs this season. Beagle has six goals and six assists. The Isles will have had a nice break as they will have been off since an impressive 6-5 home win over Western Conference-leading Dallas on Sunday. But the Isles have lost top defenseman Johnny Boychuk for 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury. Boychuk has three goals and 11 assists with a plus-nine rating this season. This is the first meeting between the Caps and Isles. Washington beat New York in seven games in last year's conference quarterfinals. Holtby had to make only 10 saves in Game 7. New York has lost seven consecutive first-round playoff series.
St. Louis at Los Angeles, Saturday: The Kings are pulling away in the Pacific Division but had a five-game winning streak end Saturday at Colorado, 4-1. No. 1 goalie Jonathan Quick got the night off, however. Quick was named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday after going 4-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average last week. Kings center Jeff Carter missed a fifth straight game with an upper-body injury Saturday. He has 11 goals and 17 assists this season. Carter did travel, so he's probably back by this game if not earlier. The Blues entered the week on a three-game losing streak, totaling just four goals. They did get back forward Patrik Berglund on Saturday in Toronto after he had missed the first 40 games due to offseason shoulder surgery. Berglund, who had 12 goals and 15 assists last year, skated on a line with David Backes and Magnus Paajarvi. This will be the Blues' third game in four nights and second of a back-to-back as St. Louis is at Anaheim on Saturday. The Kings won 3-0 in St. Louis on Nov. 3. Quick sat that one out as well. Jhonas Enroth had the shutout.
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