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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Colin Horgan

The Florida Panthers – and their rats – found a redemption that still awaits the Edmonton Oilers

Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov lifts the Stanley Cup after their 2-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers in Game Seven of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Florida on 24 June 2024.
Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov lifts the Stanley Cup after their 2-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers. Photograph: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

On what was their third attempt in franchise history, the Florida Panthers won the Stanley Cup. They didn’t do so easily. Up three games to none on the Edmonton Oilers, they let their series lead slip away, lost three in a row, and set up a deciding seventh game back in Florida on Monday night, arguably the most anticipated Stanley Cup Final game seven in decades. It delivered an anxious end-to-end battle, and an exciting end to a long and unprecedented final round. Excitement is cold comfort for Oilers fans, whose hopes were high after Edmonton’s surprising resurgence. For them, the loss will sting even more than that of 2006, the last time the Oilers lost the Cup in seven. But for Florida, the Cup is the culmination of a 30-year journey from early expansion surprise to laughing stock and back again.

When the Panthers first went to the Cup Final, in 1996, the team was only three years old, one of the early forays the NHL made into the American South. Replete with high-quality expansion draft picks, including star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers surprised many on their way past their Eastern opponents on the way to the Cup. But those Panthers ran into a powerhouse Colorado Avalanche team, newly (and forcefully) decamped from Quebec City. The Panthers got swept, 4-0. Still, that early playoff run engaged a new fanbase and even established a bit of team lore, based on a story about how forward Scott Mellanby killed a rat that scuttled into the Panthers’ locker room at the Miami Arena during the team’s home opener that season. As other players jumped out of the way, Mellanby treated the rat like a puck, killing it with a hard one-timer. Fans took to tossing plastic rats on the ice to celebrate wins – a habit that’s stuck.

A few days after the Panthers lost that Cup in 1996, the team held a rally at the Arena to celebrate the “year of the rat”. “Miami has been starving for a winning team,” one fan told the Associated Press that day as he clutched a handful of plastic rats he was selling for $3 apiece. “We finally get a taste of it.” The turnout of 15,000 fans to the party surprised Vanbiesbrouck. “This is phenomenal,” he told the news agency. Hockey looked very much at home, entrenched even, in south Florida.

But it took nearly three decades for the Panthers to get back to the Final. Along the way, people lost interest. By the 2010s, the team was struggling to fill seats, resorting to free or nearly-free ticket giveaways. Season ticket holders fled like, well, rats from a ship. And who could blame them, really? Two trips to the playoffs in 2012 and 2016 didn’t make up for years at the bottom of the barrel. The answer was, eventually, Bill Zito. Under Zito, who was named general manager in 2020, the Panthers quickly changed for the better, with upgraded training and nutrition and better data analysis. They improved the players they had or collected others who worked in the system. And they made big, sometimes curious moves. Jonathan Huberdeau for Matthew Tkachuk? Ten million a year for Sergei Bobrovsky? But they got better, if still chaotic. Even as they rampaged through the playoffs last year on a surprising run, it seemed too good to be true. Their collapse on almost all fronts in the Final against Vegas last year appeared to confirm the doubts. Florida: still a bit of a joke.

Not in the dressing room. A “bump in the road,” is what Florida’s Aaron Ekblad called the team’s Cup Final loss last season. “It stings now,” he said. “But we’ll find a way to come back next year and be stronger because of it.” Turns out he was right. The joke was on us. The fans are back, their faith in the rats restored. There was no reverse-sweep. And the Panthers are Stanley Cup champions.

For a time, Edmonton knew that feeling well. The Oilers’ mini-dynasty of the 1980s – five Stanley Cups in a decade – was unique, but it also set high expectations. The Oilers have often struggled since their last Cup win, even economically. After their ’06 Cup run they didn’t make the playoffs for 10 years, returning only in 2017, two years after Connor McDavid arrived.

The night McDavid was drafted in 2015 – an event the NHL hosted in the Panthers’ home rink – there were more people in the stands than had regularly attended Panthers’ games that season. Among them were supporters from Edmonton who’d made the long trek south to see their new superstar sworn in. The Oilers had finished sixth in the Pacific division and 13th overall in the Western Conference that year, with a -85 goal differential, and Oilers fans needed something to cheer about. “It is almost like the draft is our Stanley Cup,” one fan told the Globe and Mail that night. “Nobody celebrates tiny victories like Edmonton Oilers fans.”

But of course since then, they’ve wanted the big ones. It took no time for McDavid to place himself among the list of the best players alive. By naming him captain after his first season, at just 19 years old, the put him in line with the best player to ever live, Wayne Gretzky – high expectations to restore the former “city of champions”. While McDavid and the rest of the Oilers finished Monday night under a pall, McDavid still stepped out from the Great One’s long shadow. This postseason, McDavid climbed past one of Gretzky’s single season records, most assists in a playoff season, with 34, on the way to 42 points by the end of the Final. (Gretzky holds the points mark with 47.) For that, McDavid won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2024 postseason – a trophy he didn’t accept in person on the ice, but which will carry his name all the same. That’s something, anyway. And it will have to be enough for now. A small victory to celebrate, while the big one still awaits. It stings for the Oilers, but with any luck, it’ll just be a bump in the road.

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