The newborn “Florida” already in 1994 almost reached the playoffs. Against the background of the complete disaster of the newly created “Ottawa” and “San José”, who had barely a dozen victories per season, the “Panthers” looked great: they lacked only one point for the eight. Now the eighth-place Panthers in the East have reached the conference finals for the first time since 1996 and are poised to repeat their crowning achievement.
Almost the key figure of this team is Sergei Bobrovsky. The goalkeeper, who has long since stopped believing in the United States, entered the playoffs at a decisive moment, dragged his club into the Toronto attack and saved 63 shots for the Carolinas yesterday on the guest ice. These circumstances make his cupbearer campaign similar to that of 1996.
“He’s a sorcerer!” Bobrovsky played the game of his life and entered the historic top 10 goalkeepers in the NHL
Even now, clubs from southern markets cannot be taken seriously by everyone; in the early 1990s, even fewer believed in the success of the project. The club’s first president, Bill Torrey, told reporters: “When I was flying to Miami for the first team meeting, my neighbor on the plane was an old lady who had two bottles of whiskey on the table. She asked me what she was doing and I told her that she was going to organize a professional hockey team in Miami. She moved both bottles from her table to mine and said that she would need them more than she did.”
In the club’s expansion draft three years later, there were no outfield players who could be considered stars. In 1994, the Panthers selected tough guard Ed Zhovanovsky as the first pick in the draft, and Zhovokop, even in his youth, fully corresponded to the philosophy that was outlined in Florida from the first days of its existence – to build a team that is even. , but tough, against which it would be unpleasant for any opponent to play. The only exception was the goalkeeper position.
Photo: Albert Dickson/Getty Images
John Vanbiesbroek was one of the best goalkeepers in the league in the second half of the 80s: in 1986 he won the Vezina. However, the Rangers had recruited a new goalkeeping talent, Mike Richter, the previous year, and for several years the two Americans were nearly even in goal for Rangers. The next expansion draft was supposed to leave one at the door, and in New York they preferred the younger Richter.
In order not to lose the goalie for free, the Rangers sent Vanbiesbrook to Vancouver for “future compensation”, much to John’s annoyance. But the Canucks also didn’t defend the goalie who went to Miami. It is worth noting that Florida was lucky here – in parallel with the Panthers, Anaheim entered the league. Teams drew lots to decide who would take priority in the draft: the coin gave Florida the first overall pick.
Vanbisbrook went to Florida against an extremely negative backdrop: the Rangers sensationally missed the playoffs in the spring of 1993, and the hockey player’s older brother committed suicide. However, moving to a new place helped the goalkeeper to reset himself and at least put bad thoughts on the back burner. He also helped coach Roger Nelson’s tactic, that he preferred to catch in the middle zone, when the rules still allowed it. It was boring but effective, and the Panthers broke the NHL record for points scored by an expansion team.
Although Florida missed the playoffs twice, the team performed better than expected. In the summer of 1995, the club fired Nelson and replaced him with 41-year-old Doug McLean, who made his NHL head coaching debut. “This will show Nelson how to exceed expectations with a group of veterans,” Sports Illustrated quipped, sending the team down to second from last, 12th in the East. The experts were wrong in their predictions by only eight positions: thanks to the sixth defense in the NHL, Florida climbed into the top 4 of the conference, but in the playoffs it still looked like an outsider.
In parallel, the legend of the “Rat Trick” grew: in the first home game of the season, Scott Mellanby scored a brace, and before the game, with a powerful click, he threw a rat against the wall, that there was an idea stupid to show up in the hockey team’s locker room. The sharp-tongued Wanbiesbroek played with “hat” and “rat” and the legend of the murdered rat began to spread. Many have seen photos of the court dotted with stuffed rodents, but fans were initially prohibited from taking them into the arena and hid them in their clothing, showing ingenuity. After one of the victories, Florida officials estimated the total cost of the rats dumped on the ice at $55,000.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Total team pay was $19 million, only half of what the Rangers were spending, with only Wanbiesbroek standing out in terms of salary. He was a tight-knit mix of discharged veterans and proposing youngsters: deep down he was a little reminiscent of present-day Seattle. “If someone in our locker room says, ‘McLean won’t let me play much,’ they’ll quickly shut up, because there are enough guys around them who just deserve to play. We respect each other, we work hard in training and we fight as one,” said team captain Brian Skrudland, who won two Cups in Montreal.
As in 2023, Boston was waiting for Florida in the first round, although not as dominant as in this regular season, but which had many stars and was already perceived as a living legend by Ray Burke. In the first three games, which ended in victories, the goalkeeper saved 119 bears in total. This was achieved thanks to a technique rare in the 90s, as well as incredible preparation for matches, when no one could disturb John’s calm. Locker room legends said the team owner patted Vanbiesbroek on the shoulder before the game and he nudged him in response. However, there were no consequences.
In the second round, Florida defeated Philadelphia (4-2), which had already assembled the legendary Lindros Legion of Doom, and Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh (4-3) in the conference final. The teams of two different stars were united by one thing – the underestimation of the opponent. “I listened to the conversations in the dressing rooms of these clubs, and I remember that Lindros and Leclerc, like Lemieux and Jagr, did not take the Panthers seriously. They didn’t think this team could put up a serious fight,” journalist Michael Russo told Sportsnet. In both series, the outsiders were inferior in their turn, but they pulled out the victory.
“They are the best defensive team I have ever played against. When you beat one opponent, two more would appear in your path: we didn’t have a lot of space,” Lemieux said during the series. At the same time, Florida also showed itself in attack: for example, in Game 3, the Panthers made 61 shots at Tom Barrasso’s goal. The team’s plan was simple: two fives simply got under the skin of all the opponent’s stars, while trusting the goalkeeper. “John played every game like a star. Everyone on the team was important, but Vanbiesbrook was very good in this tiebreaker,” Macklin recalled later.
As the players from that “Florida” said later, the victory in the Eastern final was celebrated as if it were already a championship. Hockey players bought all kinds of alcohol and squandered it so much that they later called this the reason for the bad start to the final series with Colorado. Already before the first match, the club got into a scandal: a couple of minutes before the start of the game, the NHL representative drew attention to the colored winding of the Vanbisbroek stick and demanded that it be replaced. The league had a red tape rule, but no one paid attention to goalie red tape for years. In Florida they considered that these were the intrigues of Colorado, who decided to piss off the goalkeeper.
Stanley Cup Final – 1996
Photo: Albert Dickson/Getty Images
The Avalanche won 3-1 in Game 1, and the visiting team was mocked by the Denver press for playing too conservatively. McLean, after reading the article, decided to motivate all the players: the cutout was displayed on all locker rooms in the locker room. This worked out a little differently than expected: already in the first period, the Panthers took three putouts in five minutes, with the opponent converting each of these putouts. The 1-8 final was the second-biggest loss in NHL Finals history. The Panthers went too far in the battles with the favorites, and the Colorados already took their rival seriously: the games in Florida were difficult for the Avalanches, but they won both and closed the series 4-0.
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Unfortunately for the locals, the surge was short-lived: in the old jumps, Florida reached the playoffs in 1997, but a year later, McLean quickly lost his job: the reason for the Panthers’ bad start was in many ways the failed play. . from Wanbiesbroek. Even the trade of Pavel Bure, who sometimes played for half an hour, allowed the team to smell the playoffs only once – to play it twice in 20 years. As it turned out, for the second historic run in the Cup, a goalkeeper with Vezina in his biography is needed – let Bobrovsky show himself much later than expected.