BUFFALO—The Florida Panthers can’t lay claim to being from The Happiest Place on Earth.
A little amusement park to the north of them owns that nickname.
But right now, being a Panther may be being part of The Happiest Hockey Team on Earth. Yes, winning always makes the smiles emerge like a six-year-old going on the “It’s a Small World” ride for the first time, but there’s more to it than stringing a bunch of victories together.
The Florida franchise is 23 years old and, oddly, it feels at the moment rather like all the players were born back in the same year Wayne Huizenga founded the team and are now growing up together as the organization finally, and really, gets its act together.
“The last six weeks have been awesome,” said head coach Gerard Gallant.
The team hasn’t lost since Dec. 12th and won its 10th straight on Tuesday night, 5-1 over the swooning Buffalo Sabres, to solidify its hold on first place in the Atlantic Division. The fans, inspired by what they’re seeing, are coming out in bigger numbers after years of awful attendance figures.
Broward County recently approved an $86 million bear hug for the team to stabilize the future. GM Dale Tallon, into his sixth year of patiently building the Panthers, just got a contract extension. Gallant got one, too.
Sasha Barkov, who stole an Evander Kane pass and set up Jonathan Huberdeau for Florida’s fourth goal on Tuesday night, is emerging as a star. Roberto Luongo has stopped 100 of the last 102 shots he’s faced and inserted himself into the Vezina Trophy conversation.
Jaromir Jagr, 43, is playing like he’s, well, 35 again, and having a ball toying with the media pretty much every day. Maybe he’s going to the All-Star Game, maybe he isn’t. Maybe he was at the arena working out at 11:30 p.m. on Monday night, maybe he wasn’t.
“I don’t want to be embarrassed out there, which is why I’m working so hard,” said Jagr, who scored the 736th goal of his extraordinary career against the Sabres. “I don’t want to be the guy who plays bad and makes my linemates look bad. Some games that happens and I apologize.”
You walk into the Florida dressing room after a morning skate and there’s a dozen players just sitting at their stalls, happy to chat if you’d like, light years removed from the barbarians-at-the-gate approach many NHL clubs take these days.
“It’s really nice to have smiles around the rink. We just enjoy ourselves,” said defenceman Erik Gudbranson, Tallon’s first draft pick with Florida. “People talk about it being a business. But this isn’t a business for us in here right now. This is just a bunch of guys playing hockey together. It’s really difficult to find that.”
If you work for the Panthers, life sure is good at the moment, particularly if you’re the lucky one who gets that odd, pale blue hoodie with the face of actor Kevin Spacey floating in outer space on the chest for being player-of-the-game. The hockey world would love to know what the inside joke is there, but the Panthers aren’t saying.
“We enjoy life, having good times out on the ice, working at our craft together,” said 36-year-old defenceman Brian Campbell.
That’s all the nice touchy-feely stuff. On the ice, the Panthers have given up only 18 first period goals all season and emerged as a hardnosed, defence-first club in a league where defence wins.
The club jumped to 91 points from 66 last season under Gallant, which was a nice step forward. But now, 16 wins in their last 19 have the Panthers on pace for 107 points.
“For us, the difference was these young guys leading a bit more. They’ve got to lead this team,” said Campbell. “You see Huberdeau and Barkov and (Aaron) Ekblad. Those guys have to say this is our team now instead of being passengers.”
While the Panthers have evolved into one of the NHL’s most miserly defensive teams, some of the analytic trends suggest this hot streak is as much about the superb save percentages of Luongo (.930) and backup Al Montoya (.938) as it is about truly being a good team.
In other words, hockey analytics strongly suggest this hot streak might not be sustainable. Gallant doesn’t say whether he believes that or doesn’t. He’s just not particularly bothered about it.
“I’m learning (analytics) to be honest with you,” said Gallant. “We’ve got some analytics guys on our staff who are helping out and showing us some of the different stuff. It wasn’t part of my coaching in the past, but I think there’s some room for it to help our team. I’m willing to listen.”
Tallon has stuck by his plan to carefully draft and develop, although the team made the playoffs in his second season after signing Campbell and a group of expensive vets because the team needed to spend just to get to the salary cap floor. That got people excited, but also created a sense of here-we-go-again disillusionment when it was followed by seasons of 36 points in a 48-game lockout season and 66 points in an 82-game campaign.
Tallon preached patience, but the team changed hands and fans stayed away.
“It was a revolving door for a lot of years. I’ve played with a lot of guys with the Panthers. The over-under might be 60. Which is a lot of guys,” said Gudbranson, taken after Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin in the 2010 draft. “I knew there was a good plan in place. Florida, at the end of the day, is a really good place to go and play hockey for a lot of reasons.
“But for a number of years we were looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and it was really, really hard to find. It was a very dim light.”
Bringing in Luongo stabilized the crease, and based on the stats he’s playing as well now as he has since he backstopped the Vancouver Canucks to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. Bringing in Jagr, meanwhile, added both a legendary athlete and a unique, team-lifting personality.
“You don’t coach those guys,” said Gallant of his veteran goalie and leading scorer. “They help you coach.”
Ekblad joined last season as an 18-year-old rookie and missed all the pain that players like Gudbranson and Campbell went through. He represents a new era of successful hockey yet feels like he’s been a fixture for a decade.
“It’s not just about bringing in guys who fit your cap or seem like good players,” said Gudbranson. “It’s about finding that mix of players who will get together and play well together and stand up for each other, come to the rink really knowing and understanding what it means to trust the guy beside you.
“Just seeing the guys coming to the rink with the same level of preparation and enthusiasm every single day is the most exciting part.”
Jagr, who turns 44 next month, is with his fifth NHL club in the last six seasons after leaving the league entirely to play in the KHL for three seasons. He’s been in the best markets and the weakest, and along with his teammates was thrilled to see more than 20,000 fans jam the BB&T Centre in Sunrise on Saturday to watch the Panthers shut out the New York Rangers.
“You need to sell something,” he said. “The streak has helped us a lot. The team can say, ‘See, we didn’t lie. There’s something special here.’”