Last year, the Florida Panthers ended the season at the bottom of the conference standings and among the worst teams in the league. They're a team constantly mired in controversy. For various reasons -- from terrible management to a lack of fans buying tickets to the fact the South Florida has never truly embraced ice hockey -- the Cats have been mostly an afterthought in the local sports narrative.
Yet the Panthers have been sneakily making some serious noise in the NHL this season. Enough to where serious hockey fans and opposing teams have begun to take notice.
Fact is, going to a Panthers game at the BB&T Center is one of the cheapest thrills you can have in South Florida. Better still when the team no longer sucks.
Here are the five reasons you should stop ignoring the Panthers and throw your full support behind them:
5. Roberto Luongo Is Having a Standout Season The Panthers are allowing 2.51 goals per game this season after allowing 3.20 last season. That may not look like much, but it's one of the main reasons the team is in thick of the playoff hunt. And it's mostly due to their goalie. Luongo, who will be headed to his fifth NHL All-Star game this year, is very much in the Hart Trophy conversation, given how the Panthers were expected to be utter crap this season. And if the Panthers can make the playoffs, the Cats will go as far as Luongo will take them, which can potentially be very deep.
4. The Panthers Have a Chance to Make the Playoffs, Which Is Bananas If you hadn't noticed, the Panthers have been absolute trash for the better part of a decade. The Panthers have avoided the playoffs like the plague over the years. Yet this year, thanks in large part to being to close out close games, the Panthers are climbing the standings and making some noise with its young talented core. Making the postseason would be a huge deal around here, given how this team has been so bad for so long. The Cats are making progress, and that's something to be excited about.
3. Rookie Aaron Ekblad Is a Future Star The Panthers earned the right to pick first overall in the NHL Draft. So when you have the first pick, you better get it right. And it looks like the Cats struck gold with 18-year-old Aaron Ekblad.
The rook leads all rookie defensemen in the NHL in points, and has set a franchise rookie record for defensemen with 13 assists and 23 points in just 39 games. The kid even has his sights on an all-time great. He's on pace to break Bobby Orr's 41 points in 1996 as the second-highest scoring blue liner in history at 18 years of age.
2. They're an Exciting Team Aside from making a serious run at a playoff berth, the Panthers have become something of a cardiac Cat hockey team. Luongo, Eckblad and third-year center Nick Bjugstad make for three players worth watching, and the way they've been able to pull off nail-biting victories has been nothing short of pure excitement. Twenty six of the Cats' 39 games have been decided by one goal. Moreover, the Panthers are 14-3-9 in those one-goal games.
They just played in the longest shootout in NHL history. If there's a game that captures the essence of the 2014-15 Panthers, it's that one.
1. They're the Only South Florida Team Worth a Damn Right Now The Dolphins, Hurricanes, and Marlins all suck this year. And now the Heat has joined that mediocrity soup. But the Panthers are competitive, fun, and, most of all, a winning team. Sure, they're not elite. Far from it. But the fact that they're a legit contender to make the playoffs this year is more than can be said about any of the other sports teams around these parts.
That's worth our support.