They're back, baby!
Can you feel the excitement building over Florida's return to NHL playoff hockey for the first time in 12 years?
Maybe not, but you at least have to cop to the fact that the Panthers are possibly the most surprising team to make it based on last summer's prognostications. Ottawa fans will disagree, but there was no single player on the Panthers' roster last summer as talented as Sens like Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson or even 39-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.
The Panthers made wholesale changes last summer, which some hockey observers thought were five moves too many chemistry-wise. But the low expectations were also due to the fact that the Southeast Division also houses recent perennial Washington, as well as last year's conference finalist Tampa Bay.
When Florida went on its massive spending spree, acquiring about a dozen players from around the league, it was cynically suggested that they were just trying to reach the team salary floor mandated by the NHL's CBA.
Regarding those changes, we hinted last summer that it probably wasn't as jarring a makeover as it seemed. Several pairings of players or trios knew each other well from previous NHL stops.
It it is this collection of vagabonds (see sidebar) that will be tasked with writing a new chapter for Panthers playoff hockey.
Florida hasn't been in the post-season dance since they went out in four straight to the New Jersey Devils in 1999-00, being outscored 12-6.
That squad contained players who have long since retired: Guys like Pavel Bure, Scott Mellanby, Sean Burke, Mike Vernon and Ray Whitney.
Well, four out of five ain't bad.
The last time the Panthers won a playoff game was a full 15 years ago — a five-game series loss in the opening round to the New York Rangers — and the last time they won a round was the first and only year in which they won a round.
That of course was the improbable 1996 team which upset Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in just Florida's third year of existence, coached by Doug MacLean (he led a team to the Stanley Cup final?).
Current Panthers defenceman Ed Jovanovski was on the '96 and '97 squads. If the missing ingredient for the Panthers to make the playoffs was Jovanovski, maybe Florida should have never made that trade with Vancouver after all.
But don't confuse the playoff drought of the franchise as a whole with the playoff experience of the respective players on their roster.
When you add the career games up, Florida wouldn't be the least experienced team.
There will indeed be playoff greenhorns like Dmitry Kulikov, Shawn Matthias and Stephen Weiss. The latter player, incidentally, only had to wait nine seasons and nearly 700 games to finally suit up in the postseason. Could be worse: His former teammate Jay Bouwmeester will go 10 seasons or more on the outside looking in.
The Panthers have three players who hoisted the Cup with Chicago in 2010 — Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg — as well as 2008 winner Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit).
Guys like Jose Theodore, Tomas Fleischmann and Marco Sturm have gone multiple rounds in the playoffs before. Sean Bergenheim was likely the most unsung player of last year's post-season, scoring at every turn for Tampa Bay.
These castoffs aren't exactly on the hot seat this time around, as there's reason to believe the Panthers are unlikely to get past the midway point of the NHL playoffs.
The league's mindbending format may have them seeded third, but they're every bit the sixth place team their point total suggests, if that.
Florida positively limped into the playoffs with just two wins in their last 10 games (befitting their season, six of these games went past 60 minutes).
Their even strength goal ratio, a stat that is a fairly strong predictor of who will prosper in the playoffs, was a weak 0.87. The only teams worse than that were Toronto, Calgary, Carolina, Columbus, Minnesota, and the New York Islanders.
Florida's penalty killing wasn't great and they coughed up more second intermission leads than any other team that made the NHL playoffs.
So enjoy them while you can. And if you're from the rest of Canada, revel in the fact that they've just made the Toronto Maple Leafs the team with the longest playoff drought.