WASHINGTON – Jonathan Huberdeau is the longest tenured player on the Florida Panthers roster.
Speaking through a smile, he best summed up what Friday’s victory in Game 6 of the opening round against the Washington Capitals meant, not only to him, but to so many others who have played for, worked for and cheered for the franchise over the past several decades.
“It feels good,” he grinned. “A long time coming. A lot of years.”
Twenty-six years to be exact, not that anyone was counting.
Some of the fans who were celebrating on Friday night remember what that magical run in 1996 felt like, one that went all the way from Bill Lindsay’s diving goal in Game 5 of round one to the Stanley Cup Final against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche.
Some fans who were celebrating on Friday weren’t even born when that happened.
It doesn’t matter.
The cheers were just as loud, and the champagne (or beer, soda, water, whatever) tasted just as sweet.
A season that was all about breaking down invisible barriers and rewriting the team’s history books couldn’t have ended without the more-than-overdue success bleeding into the postseason.
And that success could only be obtained with the same hand-wrenching, nail-biting Comeback Cats style that made the 2021-22 Panthers the most exciting team the NHL has seen in decades.
Three straight playoff wins when allowing the first goal? Check.
Falling behind 3-0 on home ice during a pivotal Game 5? No biggie.
Coming back to win Game 6 after trailing during the third period? To quote Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, “What, like it’s hard?”
“We took the punch, we stood up, and then we started punching back,” Panthers Head Coach Andrew Brunette said of Florida’s comeback in Game 6. “That kind of epitomizes what the whole season was.”
A remarkable season, to be sure.
That’s what it took for the Panthers to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since that improbable run to the Final all those years ago.
It must be an incredible monkey-off-the-back feeling for the players who have been with the team the longest, guys who are considered Florida’s foundational pieces.
Huberdeau made his Panthers debut during the 2012-13 season, Sasha Barkov the following year, and Aaron Ekblad the year after that.
They’ve been through the wringer multiple times and have come out on the other side for the better.
Now, finally, all those years of hard work and suffering through losing seasons and playoff disappointments are paying off in a big way.
“Me, Barkie, Eckie, Weegs, all these guys never won a round,” Huberdeau said. “I think that was important for us, and today it happened, so I think now we might as well go all the way.”
Indeed, that’s the thing about achieving this particular milestone; great as it is to advance, and rare as its been for this franchise, the Panthers are still a long ways away from reaching their goal.
This team wasn’t constructed to just win a playoff series.
They intend on winning several.
“During my career, nine years here, I haven’t been past the first round,” Barkov said after the game. “It feels great, but at the same time, I know there is a lot of work to do.”
Florida won’t find out who their second round opponent is until Saturday night.
That’s when the Toronto Maple Leafs will host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of their opening round series.
Both are incredibly talented teams on what would be compelling storylines, whether it be Tampa going for the extremely rare Stanley Cup three-peat, or Toronto for getting out of the first round following their own extended drought. It’s not quite as long as Florida’s was, but 18 years without advancing is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a team that plays in the unofficial hockey capital of the world.
Nevertheless, the Panthers now have the luxury of kicking back on their couches and watching these two powerful teams battle it out for the right to play Game 1 in Sunrise next week.
Just don’t ask the Cats who they’d rather face.
“At the end of the day, we don’t really care who we’re playing,” said Huberdeau.
After a 58 win, 122 point regular season, and a come from behind, 4-2 opening round series win, you’d probably be full of confidence too.
That’s what makes the Florida Panthers who they are.
They’ve walked the path. They’ve traveled the distance.
They became the NHL’s highest scoring team since that same 1995-96 season Florida last saw any playoff success. They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners and the Comeback Cats.
Sure, they might get down, but they’re never out of it.
And now, they’re on to round two.
“I see a group of guys that get hit, they don’t fall down, and they start hitting back,” Brunette said. “They showed that throughout this whole series and they showed that tonight.”