TORONTO – Dozens of vehicles decorated with Florida Panthers license plates, team flags and homemade signs packed into the BB&T Center parking lot on Friday for a drive-thru playoff rally.
Did I say dozens? It was more like hundreds, coiled around the building like a colorful, honking snake made of cars.
We may be quite literally in the heat of summer, and in the midst of a pandemic that has us living a masked, socially distant lifestyle, but that didn’t stop these dedicated, passionate Panthers fans from showing up in droves at 5 p.m. on a Friday, taking the opportunity to be around fellow members of the Untamable movement and voice their support for a team about to begin its first postseason series in four years.
They're the same supporters that endured frustrating game after frustrating game for over a decade of playoff-less hockey. Devoted enthusiasts that waited almost fifteen years to the day between postseason victories. Not series wins…just wins. (For those wondering, April 17, 1997 – April 15, 2012).
You try telling them that the Panthers aren't popular. That they have no fanbase.
The appetite for playoff success couldn't be greater, and quite frankly, there are no excuses as to why this team shouldn't advance.
Top to bottom, this is a roster that is built for a deep run.
Postseason experience? Check.
Ability to roll four lines? Yup.
Veteran goaltender with proven playoff successs? Uh huh.
One of the best head coaches in NHL history? You know it.
Make no mistake, there isn’t any explanation that will satisfy the yearning of those long-waiting Panthers fans if the team fails to break through yet again.
The only solace will come in a shorter-than-usual offseason, giving way to the next opportunity for optimism that arrives with a new season and new hope to someday quench that decades-long thirst for victory on the game's grandest stage.
The time to start winning (again) is now. The mid-90s were a long, long time ago.
Florida’s last playoff win was on April 20, 2016. Game 4 against the New York Islanders, a 2-1 road victory that tied the opening round series at two games apiece, creating a best-of-three for the right to advance.
The next two games would also be 2-1 final scores. Both in double overtime, both won by the Islanders.
For lack of a better term, it's an extremely hard pill to swallow, so it's understandable why one of the few Panthers still around from that heartbreaking series was more focused on looking forward than back when asked about facing the Isles again.
"We're a different team. There's not a lot of guys left from the team we had four years ago," Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau said after a practice at the Ford Performance Centre earlier this week. "This is the playoffs; it doesn't matter the team [we're playing]. We just have to focus on Game 1 and win."
A VALUABLE LESSON
Florida has spent the last two days trying to learn from the exhibition disaster on Wednesday against Tampa Bay.
In what was supposed to be a tune-up, shake off the rust, early afternoon affair, the Panthers were completely outplayed from the start. They were not ready for what the Bolts were bringing.
The term that Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville and several of his players used to describe the 5-0 defeat was "wake-up call."
Tampa showed up to Scotiabank Arena ready to perform at the pace of the playoff game. Florida just showed up.
“Now we know how it’s going to be in the playoffs,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov said. “We have to be ready for that. We got a good lesson from Tampa, but fortunately for us that game didn’t count.”
No, it didn’t. And the memory of that game will be all but erased if Barkov, Huberdeau and the rest of the Panthers can reach their immense potential and achieve something that this organization hasn’t done since the first season of Everybody Loves Raymond was airing on television.
Saturday at 4 p.m. the puck will drop on Florida's best-of-five series with the Islanders. It's an opportunity for the Panthers to exercise over two decades of playoff demons and shed some of the suffocating reputation that comes with being a perpetually losing franchise for oh so many years.
That's why for some, it will feel like so much more is on the line than just a playoff series. But for the men on the chessboard, the players and coaches responsible for how the events of the postseason will unfold, a quiet confidence resides within.
Perhaps it's because this group has seen what it is capable of when firing on all cylinders.
Quenneville and his three Stanley Cup rings know that if his team can perform the way he intends and teaches, and at the level necessary to compete and succeed during the postseason, good things will happen.
Following their exhibition embarrassment to Tampa Bay, it should be easy for Panthers players to recognize just how hard they have to go, and understand that the effort must be maximized from the second their skates hit the ice.
As long as they play their game, and play it well, Q is confident things will work out.
“I don’t think there is a lot of secrets in a lot of teams, how they play,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s how we play.”