The Florida Panthers are in the midst of a historic season as a franchise, and as of this writing, have already eclipsed 100 points on the season, and clinched a playoff spot with a win over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night. This is the best team the Panthers have ever assembled, and their rise to the top of the NHL’s elite teams has been nothing short of remarkable. And quite honestly, it has been a (very) long time coming. With the success the Panthers have had this year, after building a very solid foundation a season ago, it is impossible not to get excited about the Cats’ Stanley Cup chances this summer.
This got me thinking about the last time South Florida had the buzz of championship expectations propelling us into the playoff stretch. Of course, we have had some scattered playoff appearances and even a “bubble Finals” run to get excited about in South Florida sports, but something about this year’s Panther team feels like the last great champion we celebrated in this market, and it’s been just about ten years since the first of back-to-back parades down Biscayne. That was the groundwork of what South Florida sports teams could and should be moving forward. This year’s Panthers roster has followed the blueprint closer than anyone may realize, but I plan to open some eyes in that regard. Because these Cats are starting to bring back some White Hot memories.
2012-2013 Miami Heat
The 2012-13 Miami Heat was one of the best teams in the history of basketball, and they capped that off with their second NBA championship in a row in a thrilling seven game series against the San Antonio Spurs that year. Led by the famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) “Big 3,” that season was a special run for all of South Florida and HEAT Nation. They went 66-16, rattled off a 27-game win streak, went a stellar 37-4 at home, and managed to win two separate seven game series’ in the playoffs en route to the organization’s third Larry O’Brien trophy. There are some very real parallels between the “Heatles” and the Cats.
Winning while undermanned
This years edition of the Panthers has enjoyed unprecedented success so far and looks poised for a deep run of their own, but that will come with the expected adversity that every championship team eventually has to face. The Panthers have to look no further than their neighbor in the 305 to see just what it takes to hang a banner in the rafters. They are already running into some of those tests right now and have been over the course of the season, having lost captain Sasha Barkov for six weeks earlier in the year to a knee injury and now being without star d-man Aaron Ekblad until the end of regular season at least. These are the obstacles that great teams overcome, and it is not at all unlike the 2012-13 Heat. That Heat team won games without Dwyane Wade who missed 13 games that season, which coincidentally is the exact same number of games Barkov has missed this year. They had one notable game without Lebron James or Wade and were tasked with going into San Antonio who was one of the best teams in the world at the time. They managed to get a clutch win thanks to Chris Bosh‘s heroics down the stretch. The Panthers have shown that same ability this year to pull out victories against powerhouses, without key players. They have gone 3-0 against the Carolina Hurricanes, for example, and played all three of those games with a less than fully healthy roster.
Historic WIn streaks
The Heat of nearly a decade ago went on a historic run of dominance when they won 27 games in a row during their regular season. That stretch is certainly reminiscent of the Panthers run this season of 11 consecutive home wins which is tied for the longest home win streak of all time to start a season. Both teams put themselves in a fantastic position in the standings thanks to their ability to string together long streaks. It’s hard to explain just how difficult it is to win that consistently at the professional level. After putting together so many wins in a row, opposing teams treat a game against your team as a playoff game just so they can be the ones to finally end the streak. The Miami Heat and the Florida Panthers both found ways to overcome that for long periods of time, and it resulted in a list of quality wins for both.
Never out of a game
Another trait present in championship DNA is the ability to never count yourself out of a game. This is one that the Panthers have in abundance! And they’ve shown it time and time again in the past couple of seasons. When I watched their comeback on Saturday, one game stood out as a comparison to that miraculous OT win. There was a Heat game in March of 2013 where the Heat were down by as many as 27 points on the road with their win streak on the line. They somehow managed to catch fire and come all the way back starting near the end of the third quarter and carrying them through the nail-biting finish.
That comeback was a basketball copy of what the Panthers did to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon.
It was a team they shouldn’t have struggled against, but they fell into a deep hole on the road before they knew it. But once they woke up and realized what they were capable of, they stormed back in lightning fast fashion before sealing the deal in OT.
A massively important part of a winning team’s identity is the belief that no game is ever over. The Heat had that, not just in this game, but also a certain Game 6 later that year. And the Panthers have it now. That Heat team had 14 wins after trailing by double digits, and the Panthers now have the most wins in a season in NHL history when trailing by three or more goals. There is no deficit too large for them to overcome, and more importantly, the team knows it too.
The Panthers this season have just been absolutely dominant on home ice this season. Lets get that out of the way right now. This team has demolished almost every team that has set foot inside FLA Live arena since October. There is still a month left of regular season hockey, yet the Panthers have already set a franchise record for home wins in a season with a record of 28-6-0 on home ice so far. There is definitely a chance to run that up over 30 home wins. The championship Heat also had a franchise-best home record that year when they won it all, going 37-4 at home. This is such an essential stat to look at because in South Florida, establishing a true home ice or home court advantage makes all the difference. Winning at home brings in the type of frenzied, rowdy crowds needed when the playoffs start. The Heat made American Airlines Arena their stomping ground, and the Panthers have now done the same in Sunrise.
Nothing brings out playoff intensity like a little bit of bad blood. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team win a ring without having an arch nemesis in the regular season and playoffs. I would go so far as to say that to be a championship team, you need a rival. One team that holds you accountable and is on your mind every off-season, pushing you to improve from the front office down to the last player on the bench. You need that team who you watch in the standings and don’t want to match up with them until the last possible series in the post season. The Panthers have their match in cross-state rival, Tampa Bay Lightning. And the Heat certainly had theirs in the ever-dangerous foe, the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat and Pacers had some epic battles, not just in the playoffs, but in regular season too. It was must-see TV every time those two teams tipped off, and if you were a fan of one team, you had a level of respect for the other that could only be topped by your hatred for every person on their roster, and their coach too for good measure. You screamed and cursed and wished you didn’t ever have to deal with them again. But, a win over them felt like ten wins at once. This was Heat vs. Pacers. And this is Panthers vs. Lightning. We simply have to get comfortable with the fact that getting through Tampa is going to be on the path to hoisting the Cup. The Heat knew that every year, they were not making a trip to the Finals in June unless they survived the blood bath of a series against Indiana. It usually went down to the wire, never less than six games, and there was literally blood, sweat, and tears every time. The Panthers now are at the point where this is the reality of the rivalry with Tampa, and it will take everything they have and more to top them, and that’s the way it should be.
Plus, Lance Stephenson blowing in Lebron’s ear gives off serious Pat Maroon-level annoying vibes right? I mean, this is what rivalries are all about!
the playoff grind
There is one area the Heat excelled in that we just haven’t gotten to see from the Panthers yet, and the time is now to figure it out. This is the final missing piece in replicating Miami’s championship puzzle on ice. The Miami Heat were battle tested in the playoffs and overcame all the highs and lows of the playoff chase. No matter what they were faced with in the postseason, they took it in stride and simply found a way to win. Game 7’s, injuries, bad officiating, cheap shots, hostile crowds. You name it, they faced it and conquered it. The time is now and it is this season where we will see if the Panthers have what it takes in the highest pressure situations to come out on top. The playoffs are a long and grueling road, and the physicality is substantially heightened. When bad breaks go against you, there is no luxury of saying “oh well, there’s another game in a couple days.” It is life or death for your season this time of year and the Panthers are out to prove they can do what was done almost 10 years ago in Miami by meeting those tests head-on.
With the fabric of Miami-market sports currently in the middle of a change for the better across all sports, the two who have emerged from the pack already are the Heat and the Panthers. Highlighting the success of a team a decade ago should not at all overshadow what the current teams are doing now. For two franchises that were quite literally intertwined going back to the 1990s when they shared an arena as recently founded expansion teams in downtown Miami. Now, their trajectories are aligning once again as they both head towards the playoffs in their respective leagues as first seeds in the Eastern Conference. It may be a little too much to ask for to hope for two championships here, but if regular season is any indication, we have a chance.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, keep an eye out for Part 2 with an even more unique perspective! And don’t forget to follow @PantherParkway and @LO_FLAPanthers on Twitter!