There are a few years that just mean more to the Florida Panthers.
Of course, there is 1996, that magical year in which the plucky expansion hockey team stole the hearts of South Florida in their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.
There is a new memorable year to add to the list: 2023.
Yes, this past year was one the Florida Panthers will not soon forget.
Although things did not look so hot when 2023 began — the Panthers were 16-17-4 going into their New Year’s Day game against the Rangers (which they lost) — things certainly picked up.
Not only did the Panthers finish strong and slip into the playoffs, but they became the biggest story of the postseason.
Down 3-1 to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Panthers stormed back and pulled a massive upset by knocking out a team with the best regular season in NHL history.
Then it was on to Toronto, where Florida took a 3-0 series lead before winning the East semis in 5.
Florida swept Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals with four 1-goal wins and made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in history.
“It was just fun to be around it,” coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday night. “It was fun to be associated with these guys. We were talking about this before our game; it was Jan. 1 and the Rangers were in. From the second period on, I thought we had a handle on how hard we had to play and a lot of great things happened. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of memories. It was all based on how hard those guys worked.”
Throughout the year, the Panthers became more and more talked about around South Florida, something noticed by players becoming increasingly popular.
And they were recognized more and more.
Matthew Tkachuk, who ended up being a finalist for league MVP, mentioned that when he first joined the Panthers, he could fit in around his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood.
His heroics, including guaranteeing the Panthers would return to Boston for Game 7 after they won Game 5, made him a lot more popular in his new town.
After years of being a second thought in the local sports landscape, the Panthers were back on the map.
Today, the team is playing in front of sold-out crowds in Sunrise and rewarding their fans.
Florida goes into 2024 in second place in the Atlantic Division.
The Panthers play their first game of the New Year on Tuesday in Arizona with a four-game winning streak.
Last season, the Panthers did not get to their first three-game winning streak until February.
Things turned out alright.
“It was a fun year,” Maurice said.
FLORIDA PANTHERS @ ARIZONA COYOTES
- When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
- Where: Mullett Arena at Arizona State University, Tempe
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
- Season Series — At Arizona: Tuesday. At Florida: Jan. 24.
- Last Season: Tied 1-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Arizona leads 20-17-2, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m.