SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this year.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has had his Cats purring like a well-oiled machine into the second half of the season, and despite a recent slip, Florida still holds a 22-9-4 record and is set for a fight with Tampa and Carolina for first place in the Central Division.
The Panthers have been so good this season, and so consistent, that whether you’re a casual hockey fan or a die-hard Cats follower, they are impossible to ignore.
It’s true, the NHL’s southernmost organization has been popping up on radars across the board as a likely playoff team and possible Stanley Cup contender.
That includes the radar of a certain former Panthers goalie, one who saw more playoff success with the franchise than any other puck stopper has in the team’s history.
“Oh, I’m keeping tabs on them,” original Panther John Vanbiesbrouck told Local 10.
Indeed, Vanbiesbrouck, who played for five different NHL teams over three decades, still has a little Panther blood running through his veins.
But how closely is he keeping those tabs?
If you’re asking, you must not have noticed Vanbiesbrouck at the BB&T Center last month when he dropped in for Florida’s 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars.
“My oldest boy is a big fan,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “He watches all their games. It’s a good thing to touch on from time to time with him.”
The Vanbiesbrouck family knows as well as any Panthers fans that the team has not had much success since the good ol’ days, when The Beezer was patrolling the Miami Arena goal creases and plastic rats were as hot a commodity in South Florida as sunscreen.
Back then it felt like Florida was going to be an annual fixture in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were incredibly successful for a new franchise, which was unheard of in those days.
At that time, when it was acceptable for a brand-new hockey club to be terrible for a few years (see Tampa, Ottawa and San Jose’s first couple seasons for a reference point), the Panthers arrived as the league’s most successful first year franchise and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in year number three.
Unfortunately, starting in year five, Florida would only make the playoffs once over a 14-year span and just four times during the 22 seasons since.
Now, finally, it appears the Panthers are ready to hit the bar they set for themselves nearly 30 years ago.
“I think everybody has taken notice of Florida this year,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “If you’re not, you’re probably not in the hockey universe.
“They’re a well-coached team and a very balanced team. You can see that they’re really well prepared, and you can see that they’re having fun playing. From the goal on out, they’re pretty solid.”
Yes, of course Vanbiesbrouck would take notice of the goaltenders. How could he not?
Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger have been one of the best netminding tandems in the NHL this season, a one-two punch that should serve them well as the Covid-condensed schedule continues to fly by.
Bobrovsky is currently tied for eighth in the league with 13 wins, and that’s despite the relative time share with Driedger, who may not have as many wins as his Russian counterpart, but the 26-year-old pending unrestricted free agent does hold the fifth-best save percentage in the NHL at .927.
It also helps for the Panthers to have two high-end goaltenders who deserve to play every day. It provides some inner competition that can bring the best out of players who are not only mentally strong, but also good teammates.
“It’s good to have two guys going and challenging each other every day at that position,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Not necessarily against each other, but for each other, and for the team.”
With two strong goaltenders and a roster that is one of the deepest in team history, Vanbiesbrouck believes the sky is the limit for his South Florida hockey alma mater.
The veteran of 20 years in the NHL, who has been working as the Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations for USA Hockey since 2018, knows good hockey when he sees it.
“I’m pleasantly surprised for Billy Z and the group there,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “They’ve built a very strong team.”