Name the last time the Florida Panthers came into a season considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Go ahead, we’ll wait.
The Panthers go into the 2021-22 campaign considered one of the top teams in the entire NHL perhaps for the first time since Florida went to the Stanley Cup Finals as a third-year expansion team way back in 1996.
That was also the last time the Panthers made the playoffs in successive years.
Florida’s 1996-97 team picked up where it left off, going 8-0 with four ties in the opening month before being knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Rangers.
The Panthers open up their 2021-22 season — their 28th — and few have had as much anticipation as this one.
With elite players both at forward and on defense as well as stronger-than-average goaltending tandem, the Panthers go into the this season as a team which will not sneak up on anyone.
The Panthers are good.
They know it.
The rest of the NHL knows it.
Come Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Sunrise, it’s time to prove it.
“We want to build on what we did last year,” said Carter Verhaeghe, who scored 18 goals with 36 points in 43 games last year and returns to Florida’s revamped top line with Sasha Barkov and newcomer Sam Reinhart.
“Last year we just cracked the surface to what we can do. We have a lot of great players, a lot of guys who are starting to build and get better. I think I am one of those guys who is trying to get better. We have a lot more to give. That’s kind of our goal. We had an awesome start last year. Right away we had chemistry, were clicking, everyone was playing hard. That’s what we want to do this year.”
Up front, the Panthers can get you in a number of ways. The top line alone features Barkov (the franchise’s second all-time goal scorer), Reinhart and Verhaeghe.
Then there is Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett, Owen Tippett, Frank Vatrano (58 goals in past three seasons), Patric Hornqvist and future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton.
On defense, Florida is led by Aaron Ekblad who was in the Norris Trophy conversation before being felled by a fractured ankle in March.
MacKenzie Weegar then stepped in and actually got Norris votes for the first time in his career.
“There’s going to be moments where we’re going to have ups-and-downs for sure,” Weegar said. “We’re going to stay even keeled, ride the roller coaster and enjoy it all at the same time. We’ve got a confident group here. We know what we can do. We’re excited to show it.
“Confidence is high, but I think the one thing about that is just staying humble, not getting too high. Once you get a little too confident, you’ve just got to come down a little bit. This group is very confident and that’s huge. But at the same time, we’re all staying humble in here.”
In net, the Panthers feature two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky with rookie sensation Spencer Knight expected to get a nice-sized workload as the season goes along.
“Every season brings new energy, new excitement,” said Bobrovsky, who will start Thursday’s opener against the Penguins.
“Everybody starts from zero, and I think all the guys in the locker room are excited and we’re looking forward to tomorrow’s game.”
Behind the bench is Joel Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history who won three Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks.
A team like this one is why Quenneville signed on with the Panthers in 2019.
“The guys are excited about playing Thursday night, opening night is always big,” Quenneville said. “Getting off to a strong start is the focus. Hopefully we’re ready to go.”
Although the Panthers have not avoided all the rosy talk about their future, general manager Bill Zito doesn’t think they have taken it to heart.
They know talk doesn’t get them where they want to be.
And, Zito reminds, few thought the Panthers were any good when last season started.
If the pundits were surprised by Florida’s success in 2021, Zito honestly says he was not. And the players were not either.
“I don’t think they reacted last year when the hockey world didn’t think we were going to be very good,” said Zito, who has revamped the Florida lineup since taking over from Dale Tallon on Sept. 1, 2020.
“It’s nice that people say nice things about us. But the guys are ready and our coaching staff is pretty good. They prepare the guys day-by-day and game-by-game and that’s what we worry about. Right now we’re worried about Thursday night and that’s it.”
Last year, the Panthers finished with the best points-percentage in franchise history and came within two points of winning a divisional title for what would have been the third time in history.
The Panthers put up quite a fight in the opening round against the Lightning and the disappointment on their faces after losing in Game 6 was different than what many were used to seeing.
It wasn’t resignation as has been in the past, but anger.
The Panthers are playing with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders, praise from outside notwithstanding.
“You’re going to think this is a self-serving, Hollywood comment, but it’s not: I definitely sense a little more hunger,” Zito said. “That may be familiarity since I wasn’t here the year before but I get a sense from the guys that they want to get back at it, that they’re excited and they can’t wait to get back out there and play.”
There will be plenty of time to talk about how the Panthers haven’t won a playoff round since beating the Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals nor been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1996 and ‘97.
This is an 82-game marathon — with a month break for the Olympics thrown in — so the Panthers have to be focused on the task at hand.
Right now, that’s the Penguins.
“We haven’t started this season and that’s what it is all about,’’ Barkov said. “It all starts (Thursday) at home against Pittsburgh and that’s where we start building. We had a good training camp, worked on our game and our pace. I think we’re ready to go. And that’s all we’re looking at. We’re not looking too far ahead.”