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Thursday, February 5,2015

Wanna be Cool? Head for Pantherland

By Mark Tudino  


Which local sports franchise has, at present, the best chance to capture a championship? A hint: the game this team plays doesn’t involve a ball, a hoop or a field.

It’s hockey. More specifically, Florida Panthers hockey, and if you’re not paying attention, maybe should be.

Even since its inception in1993, the team has been seen as a curiosity at best and often times, dismissed as a regional sport. But that would be a mistake, because General Manager Dale Tallon and Head Coach Gerard Gallant have their squad right in the middle of the playoff race; that’s right: if the playoffs started today (I know they don’t), your Florida Panthers would be competing for a title.

Historically, for the Panthers, it has always been an uphill fight. Early on the team experienced success; the great start, the Stanley Cup run in 1996 (complete with rats), playoff appearances in two of the next four years, then… well, let’s just say the interest level has wavered somewhere between bored and nonexistent. Not any more. The new ownership invested wisely in scouting and talent development; that means hiring people who may not be flashy, but just get the job done, and the lion’s share of the credit should go to General Manger Tallon. Largely an afterthought when he was promoted in 2010, he took one look at his roster and began making moves - lots of them. He traded away what were thought of as front line starters in exchange for young, unproven talent. Names like Nick Bjugstad, Jimmy Hayes and Aaron Ekblad may not seem familiar to you now but they may soon be; those budding stars, along with a core of smart, veteran players, lead by goalie Roberts Luongo (back from his time in Vancouver), have the Panthers staring squarely at the a post-season berth – it would be only their second such appearance in the last 15 years.

The infusion of talent, along with the hiring of head coach Gallant, a hockey lifer with previous stops in Columbus and New York, seems to have created an alchemy which yielded results. No, they are not a perennial Cup contender – at least not yet – but there’s no question they’ve have built a solid foundation. So, you combine a good product with a great experience – hockey is so much better in person – at a great venue like the BB&T Center, and you have the makings of a team to root for – one which can even nurture the faintest of title hopes. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even see the rats come back! Game on!



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