SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers were getting ready to leave their arena for the airport on Wednesday afternoon, they found Miami Heat t-shirts waiting for them.
The Panthers wore those shirts on their charter flight to Raleigh where they will open up the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The NHL Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat, meanwhile, open up in the NBA Eastern Conference finals tonight in Boston.
This has been a spring of sporting success South Florida has never seen — starting with the men’s basketball teams from Miami and FAU making the Final Four for the first time and now the Panthers and Heat sharing the May spotlight as a couple of eight-seeds knocking off the favorites in their respective leagues.
The Heat and Panthers, business competitors considering they play in different buildings sometimes on the same night, are now sharing the love with one another.
In these conference finals, the Heat and Panthers will play on alternating nights.
It is a great time to be a sports fan in South Florida.
“This is really cool,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said on Wednesday, wearing his new Heat shirt over his Panthers track suit.
“I don’t know anything about basketball. It’s like goaltending: It is cool to watch but I’m not sure what the hell they’re doing. But it is 5-on-5 so I get that. But there is a connection between these two teams through the fans.
“There are hockey fans, like me, who are now dialed into that because it is just a great story and it is fun to be a part of. We both now just have to do our half, right? Wouldn’t it be great if in two weeks we are both still playing? It would be craziness in this town.”
Marc Staal has seen teams from the same town support each other whether it was the Rangers and Knicks or teams in Detroit representing the others.
It does not happen down here all that often.
Perhaps it should.
The Panthers have been known to attend Dolphins and Marlins games — and vice versa — but this is one of the first times the Panthers and Heat have openly supported each other in what feels like a natural synergy.
The two franchises, after all, once shared an arena in Overtown.
“When you are in the same town and you have two teams in the playoffs at the same time it just brings such a great energy,” Staal said. “When you have two of your big franchises having success, everyone just gets into it. We’re excited about it here. We’re obviously pulling for them and they’re pulling for us. That is fun.
“You admire success because you know what it takes to get there. They are underdogs like us and they keep coming out on top. It is exciting.”
The Panthers and Heat are not the first teams from the same metropolitan area to advance to their respective conference finals — it last happened in 2019 with the Warriors and Sharks — but they are the first to clinch and move the very same night.
Last Friday, the Heat knocked out the Knicks in Game 6 at Miami-Dade Arena with the Panthers finishing off the Maple Leafs in Toronto not long afterward.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, known to talk a little hockey with reporters over the years, was told of the Panthers’ score during his postgame press conference.
“Spectacular,” Spoelstra said. “I wish I could actually go to some of these events.”
— George Richards (@GeorgeRichards) May 17, 2023
Perhaps, now, he can make it to a game in Sunrise and join the likes of Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel not to mention a bunch of his own players who attended Game 3 against the Leafs.
Udonis Haslem, who has a friendship with Florida’s Anthony Duclair and wears his Panthers’ jersey around, was invited by the team to bang the pregame drum.
He wore his Duclair jersey.
“Let’s go Heat,” said Florida captain Sasha Barkov, the biggest Heat fan on the Panthers. “This is awesome. I am a big Heat fan and am so excited for them. I think they have a great chance to go far. Jimmy Buckets is there and everyone is playing great. This will be a fun one tonight for sure.
“In some cities the basketball team and the hockey team play in the same arena but it is different here. But we support them and they support us. It’s unbelievable.”
The Panthers certainly appreciate the support shown by the Heat and many plan to watch tonight’s opening game against the Celtics from their hotel in Raleigh.
Many are big fans of Gabe Vincent, who keeps a Panthers jersey hanging in his locker and wore it following the Heat’s Game 6 win against the Knicks.
“I think it is just really cool and that both of us are playing on opposite nights,” Maurice said Tuesday.
“So, the only thing better than coaching one of these teams would be owning a sports bar because you are on a roll right now. To have two teams cooking at the most pressure-filled time of the year is really exciting.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1)
- When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Thursday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 2:Saturday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 3: Monday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 4: Wednesday, May 24 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Friday, May 26 at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Sunday, May 28 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Tuesday, May 30 at Carolina, 8 (TNT). *If Necessary
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): @Florida 3, Carolina 0 (Nov.9);@Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, @Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.