SUNRISE — When Dave Lowry was selected by the Florida Panthers in the 1993 Expansion Draft, the game of hockey was in a completely different place.
The Panthers, playing a foreign game in the tropics, created something special.
“I remember it being a great place to play,” said Lowry, now the coach of the Winnipeg Jets, whose team visits the Panthers on Friday night.
“Being a part of a franchise that was just starting out, the culture that we created and identity that we forged for the franchise was something all of us that were a part of it are extremely proud of.”
The Panthers immediately became one of the most successful expansion franchises in NHL history, finishing with what was, at the time, the best record in NHL history from an expansion franchise, going 33-34-17.
They became the fastest post-1967 expansion franchise to make the playoffs, going 41-31-10 in 1995-96 to clinch a playoff berth in their third season.
Both of those records held until 2018 when the Vegas Golden Knights went 51-24-7 and made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.
Florida made a surprise run to the Finals in its third season — and Lowry played a huge part in making it happen.
Lowry led the Panthers in both goals (10) and points (17) during those revered 1996 playoffs.
“It was an unbelievable experience and something that you dream of as a player is having the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup,” Lowry said.
“Unfortunately, we were on the losing end of it, but you couldn’t be more proud of the guys that you accomplished it with. We were literally cast-offs of our teams and within three years, were able to get to the Stanley Cup Final. That was a huge compliment to all of the guys that were involved and the leadership that we had with that group at the time.”
That Stanley Cup Final appearance marked the last time the Panthers would see any playoff action past the first round.
Florida missed the playoffs altogether in a span lasting from 2000-01 to 2011-12 and watched their attendance numbers sink to the bottom of the league from that point on.
Now, things are changing.
The Panthers clinched their third straight postseason berth for the first time in franchise history and fans in South Florida are starting to get interested again.
While at their lowest point during the 2014-15 season their average attendance was at a league-worst 11,265, the Panthers have an average attendance of 14,574.
“I like to see the fact that there are people in the building again and I think that goes a long way to the product they have on the ice and the leadership that’s running the team right now,” Lowry said.
“I really believe that it’s an exciting team to watch and I’ve always known that if you put a product that wins on the ice here in Florida, regardless of where the building is, people will eventually come back.”
Florida is having one of the greatest seasons an NHL team has had since the 1990s.
They became the sixth team in the past 25 years to score more than 300 goals on Tuesday while holding a 52-15-6 record and an eight-point lead for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
Now, they look to at least match the success of the 1996 Panthers squad.
“I would say that you can’t really compare the teams,” Lowry said. “This team that we’re playing tonight is obviously a lot more skilled.
“I believe the team we had in 1996, we did it as a group collectively and we were a team that relied heavily on our goaltender and we checked, we had to know how to play when we did not have the puck, and we had to rely on all four lines and six defensemen.
“At that point in time, we did not have the game-breakers that they have here today.”
Morning Skate Updates
- Sergei Bobrovsky will start in net on Friday against the Winnipeg Jets.
- Ryan Lomberg is still day-to-day and is questionable to make the team’s trip to Detroit on Sunday.
- Noel Acciari remains out of the lineup, but is close to making a return.
- The Panthers will use the same lineup they used in their 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, meaning Maxim Mamin remains on the fourth line while Joe Thornton is a healthy scratch.