SUNRISE, FLORIDA – Fans of the NHL’s Florida Panthers are currently rotating their shoulders and arms in a circular manner.
Panther fans are getting their limbs loose for some rare rat-chucking.
Allow MAS to explain.
In Detroit, come playoff time, it’s tradition for Red Wings fans to pelt the ice with octopi after the home team scores its first goal and at other game high points.
It’s just about a yearly occurrence in the Motor City.
Panther faithful have their own such ceremony — they hurl plastic rats onto the rink surface in similar postseason situations (explanation why later).
Problem is, they have been able to partake of this playoff rite in only one of the last 14 seasons — an appearance which saw the Panthers ousted in the very first round.
That makes for a lot of rust build-up.
Last campaign, Florida bottomed out, finishing dead last among all 30 NHL teams in the win-loss-tie standings.
But under new coach Gerard Gallant, a revamped Panther club is currently battling for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.
Florida currently trails Boston by just three points in that race.
It is this remarkable Panther turnaround that has their South Florida faithful once more limbering up in anticipation of some good ol’ rodent winging.
This strange tradition traces its origins back to 1995 when the Panthers were still playing at American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami.
It seems in the Florida locker room before the first game of the season, the Panthers’ Scott Mellanby spotted a rat scampering about his team’s dressing area.
Scott picked up his hockey stick and one-timed the critter across the room, rocketing it off the wall at 130 kph and into rodentia afterlife.
Mellanby went on to score two goals that night.
When news of Rat Splat got out, Panther fans began buying plastic rats to hurl on the ice come celebration time — hat tricks became rat tricks.
(The practice has since been outlawed during games by the NHL but is overlooked at certain playoff moments.)
Panther pitchers almost developed sore arms that ’95-96 postseason as Florida went all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
But it has been mostly rotator cuff cobwebs ever since.
Before some recent brushing away of same, that is.
MAS chatted with the personable Gallant in the bowels of the Panthers’ new home — BB&T Center (in Sunrise, 30 minutes north of Miami) — about his club’s 180.
Understandably, Gerard viewed his team’s pleasant turnaround with a so far, so good attitude.
“I feel good about where we are now, we’re competing every game,” allowed Gallant. “But we know we also have a goal and that is to be a playoff team.
“So, we’ll wait for the next five weeks to see how everything comes out.”
Gallant attributed the Panthers’ surprising success to arriving at the right team chemistry.
“We brought in six veteran free agents in July who are good players AND good guys — like Willie Mitchell (two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings) — to provide leadership and our younger players are getting better with experience,” Gallant told MAS.
“I think it’s been an excellent mix.”
Strategically, the Panthers have employed a conservative approach.
“For me, it’s about playing real good defensively first,” stated Gallant. “And the offensive opportunities will come off that and from our power play.”
Florida’s stats reflect Gallant’s philosophy.
Its goals against average — 2.68 — ranks in the middle of the NHL pack, precisely where the Panthers are in the overall standings.
But offensively, Florida’s scoring average of 2.32 goals per game ranks 25th out of 30.
MAS asked Gallant if he plans to tweak the Panther O to give his squad the scoring oomph they might need to pass the Bruins from Beantown.
“We won’t change a thing,” said Gallant steadfastly. “Our players are getting more experienced and better.
“We’ll score more — we’re scoring at a better rate than we did early in the year.”
Nick Bjugstad, a 22-year-old, is the lone Panther to notch 20 goals on the year — the baseball equivalent of hitting .300. He has lit the lamp 21 times to go with his 15 assists.
“Nick has really taken off this year and has been one of the players stepping up for us,” praised Gallant.
As a coach, though, Gallant is a big believer in using all 20 of his players, getting good mileage out of all four lines and three defensive pairings.
But he won’t hesitate to point out that, while his team grows, veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo is his team’s centerpiece.
Or, rather, eraser.
“When we make mistakes, he can bail them out — and that’s been the difference in our team,” conceded Gallant.
“It’s no different than a lot of teams,” suggested Gallant. “Nashville (NHL points leader) is having an outstanding season because they have Pekka Rinne in goal.
“And Montreal (second in points) has Carey Price.”
Luongo, almost 36 and owning 395 career wins, came over in a trade late last season from Vancouver, where he had a number of big years.
Showing no signs of decline, the butterfly technique specialist has been solid this campaign — 2.40 goals against average and .920 save percentage.
“I’m not here to ride off into the sunset,” Luongo stated. “I’m here to win.
“The new ownership has lived up to promises that were made — we’re off to a good start.”
Earlier in his career, Roberto had spent six seasons in South Florida, married a local gal and made nearby Ft. Lauderdale his offseason home.
Luongo is clearly a BB&T Center fan favorite.
After a save, a chant of “Luuuuuuuu!” rings out.
And when Luongo holds onto to the puck, the public address system blares the musical refrain “Louie, Louie, Louie — Lou-EE; Louie, Louie, Louie — Lou-EYE” (from the classic hit song “Brother Louie”).
“I want to bring this team back to the playoffs again,” declared Roberto.
Should postseason play indeed finally return to South Florida, Luongo’s presence, given his vast playoff experience, will likely bode well for the Panthers — and their projectile-hurling fans.
But NOT for Mickey and Minnie, who would be wise to stay upstate in Orlando.
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