I needed a day. I actually probably need a week, but my commitment and obligation to this site, and the people who read it daily make it impossible to stay away longer. At this moment the thought of the Florida Panthers season being over still numbs me. In the past when my “teams” have been knocked out of the playoffs my reaction would be much angrier. My blood pressure would be boiling, and yes I would have that feeling of having to “break some dishes”. It’s never a good thing to lose, and I’ve always had to do something to rid myself of the frustration. This time it’s a lot different than any of the others. Call it somber or melancholy, the loss hurts for sure, but I can’t remember a time when I’ve been more proud to be a fan of a team than I am right now.
As you know, the three “senior” writers of The Rat Trick, myself, Dave Lasseter and Josh Luecht have had the opportunity to be involved with this season from a very different perspective than most “fans”. The accessibility that we have is a privilege. One that we cherish with each and every game. It’s made us better writers, better analysts, and better fans. It’s put us in situations that have given us a different outlook on a sport that we love and are passionate about.
I took in game seven from where I have taken all four of the home games against the New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the playoffs…..the press box. While the first three games were exciting and entertaining, I had no idea what to expect from a game seven from where I would be watching from. I’ve seen hundreds of game sevens from a television, and quite a few from a seat in an arena, but none from where the “scribes” hang out. Games sevens can usually go one of two ways, they can be a complete blow out with one team having a significant advantage, while the losing team just never shows up. Or it can be an epic battle that leads to overtime with a bad bounce, a poor giveaway, or a surprising shot that turns out to be the winning goal. Many times that winning goal comes from a player you’d expect it to come from, but more often than not it’s from the last person on your list. How many of you picked Adam Henrique for the winner?
I arrived at the Bank Atlantic Center at approximately 6:30 P.M. Two hours before puck drop. I told myself that the main reason for that was so I could get a spot in the media lot, which unfortunately was full by the time I pulled in. In reality I needed to experience the atmosphere from start to finish of a game that would ultimately suck the energy from me by night’s end. A creature of habit, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to things like this. Call them superstitions if you want, but for me it’s more of a way of doing things that lead up to the moment. Being in my seat a few minutes before the anthem is one. Putting on my left shoe first is another.
As the building began to fill you could sense the “energy” in the air. I passed the time reading previews, chatting with some of my “presser” friends about how the game might end up, and waiting anxiously for the puck to drop. The “box” was full and I had the feeling that people were as intense about this game as I was. After a stirring anthem in front of another sold out crowd, the faceoff took place, and the first ever game seven at the Bank Atlantic Center was under way. No play by play necessary here as you know what happened. What I found however was how intensely I watched the game. From that seat you can see things develop and often times predict what play or pass may come next. I found myself afraid to look away, as I almost needed an extra set of eyes, and an extra pair of hands. Watching the game, tweeting it’s progress, and making mental notes is an act that I’m learning to juggle.
I could feel the electricity of the crowd as the chants of “let’s go Panthers” began early, and continued throughout most of the game, especially during the overtimes. The building had a special buzz that I felt even more as I took in the first intermission with our “faithful” fans at our normal meeting place in the Panther Bar. As the game progressed with the New Jersey Devils trying to do their best to bore us to death, there was a tense feeling that the Panther’s chances were slipping away. New Jersey behind the play of Martin Brodeur who stuffed every chance that the Panthers had for two periods, at one point had taken the crowd out of the game. The feeling that maybe the cinderella story was about to end was looming in the back of everyone’s mind, including those of us in the top seats.
When the third period began I found myself standing up at times, peering over the row in front of me to get a better look, and a couple times generating an emotional outburst which during the season is a no no. This night however, those vocal moments were ignored, or at least excused. Then it happened. At 5:02 Stephen Weiss scored his third goal of the series, and his third power play goal, and the game was back on. Trailing 2-1 the Panthers had life, hope, and the dream was a possibility again. The building was alive and the Florida Panthers seemed to use that energy to their advantage. Florida fired 19 shots at Brodeur in the third period and were fortunate to squeak another puck past the future hall of famer at 16:32 when Marcel Goc scored his second of the playoffs. Another Florida power play goal. Pandemonium ensued. Prior to the first goal by Weiss I had made the mistake of thinking I was reaching for my popcorn and ended up putting my hand in my Diet Coke. In the past spilling popcorn had been the “rally cry” or good luck move by both me and David Lasseter. Maybe I found a new trick as I truly did it again accidentally prior to the Goc goal. Nerves? No, I’m just a goof.
As I did my best to hold my emotions in check, which if you’ve ever watched a game with me you know is hard to do, I found myself with more nervous energy than I knew what to do with. As the teams finished regulation and began the first overtime, I chose my hero for the win (Sean Bergenheim), and hoped he could pull it off. The first overtime was scoreless as the Panthers seemed to control the play by out shooting New Jersey 12-9. A few of us gathered after the period was over and talked about what was about to come next in the second overtime. Who would win it, when they would do it, and how they would do it. The consensus was that the winner was going to come early, as one team would push harder than the other in the first few minutes. Fatigue was beginning to set in, and we also thought that the players were getting tired as well.
When Devils rookie Adam Henrique scored the game and series winner at 3:47 of the second overtime, there was a mad dash to the elevator as we rode down to get to the dressing room for the player interviews. If you knew how loud the arena was during the game, that elevator was the polar opposite in sound, and you could hear a pin drop most of the way. As I headed that way I was thinking of one thing, I’m going to miss the handshake line one of sports greatest traditions. I then quickly remembered the last time I witnessed one in person after a Stanley Cup elimination game. Let’s just say, I was in no position for another emotional breakdown.
As the door to the room opened, the room was mostly still full with the players ready to “face the music”. As hard as it was for them to answer the tough questions, they were true professionals and responded like the men they were. The look of disappointment in Ed Jovanovski’s eyes and voice told the story. The tone of Kris Versteeg who praised New Jersey for playing hard the entire series while at the same time expressing the pleasure playing before the Panther faithful, made you feel what they were feeling. Versteeg added:
“We expected to go further. Obviously, we’re happy about what we did and it was a tough way to lose, but I’m just proud that I got to play with these guys this year and we had a great season.’’
Jose Theodore who has hopefully quieted the critics with a superb season, answered his own set of tough questions from the media and gained even more respect from me than I already had for him. He spoke about the fans and how great they were, the team that he had fun playing with all season, and how bright the future of this team is, and how happy he is to be a part of it:
“A lot of people didn’t think that we were going to make the playoffs, and even less thought that we would win the division, so I think we showed a lot of character,’’
When Kevin Dineen took the podium he too expressed that despite the outcome, how pleased he was with the character of team, and how well they’ve played and responded to adversity all season long. Are they a younger version of him and they way he played? I think you could say yes. I think he summed things up pretty nicely with this:
“It’s going to take a little time for some reflection on the year’’. “I will say after 19 years of playing I coached in Portland, Maine; six years there and I loved the players I worked with, and this year for me – and it doesn’t have anything to do with nice planes, little nicer hotels and being treated pretty special which everybody does in the NHL – I think there’s a sincerity in that team you can’t try for. That comes through guys that come to the rink and that doesn’t just happen overnight.
“That starts in September and gives us a good future to build on.’’
That was it. As I drove home I admit that I was saddened from the loss, but humbled, and proud of the team all at the same time. Yes, these are men playing a game. But if any of you think for one second that they don’t care, that they don’t want to win, and that they don’t have feelings, then you’re dead wrong. When you’re able to look into their eyes and see the emotions, the pain of losing comes right to the forefront. Not one of those players wanted to have the season end, and each one of them felt they were good enough to move forward. From the physical and mental stress that they deal with, to the injuries and angst from the public that sometimes creeps into their head, hockey players are special. This Florida Panther team was special. They earned the chance to be where they were. And no one can ever take that away from them.
Now with the season over, things here at the Rat Trick will remain the same. We will post our articles daily, we will cover the playoffs that remain, the off season, the draft, free agency and a host of other stories. We”ll recap the season, and of course give you our wish list for next year.
As I close out this article I want to thank the Florida Panthers players, coachs, and management as well as the ownership for what was an outstanding season. You gave the fanbase hope, excitement, and allowed us to believe again. Just as much as you felt that you needed that, we needed that too.
I also want to say thank you to everyone who’s part of this site….my staff. Without all of you this site wouldn’t have the following that it does, and I’m gratetful for your efforts. Lastly, I’ve made some terrific friends this season, both on Twitter, and those of you I’ve met in person as well. I won’t single any of you out, (you know who you are) but you know that the bond that we now share can never be broken. Some of us are a little closer because of all this, and I only wish we had met sooner. It’s been a fun, emotional and exciting ride.
Thanks for being on this train.
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