For the Florida Panthers, things have been about as good as they could possibly be lately — at least, considering the situation they’re in.
The Panthers were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season; they finished miles above the Buffalo Sabres, but still miles below everyone, well, competitive. The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs weren’t just a pipe dream; they were something the team’s fans didn’t even think about.
Their on-ice performance wasn’t the only thing giving them reason to be mocked, either; the team’s new ownership group made it clear that they were sick of desperately begging for fair-weather fans. With the announcement that the organization would no longer pass out free ticket vouchers at every other local kolache shop, it was a foregone conclusion that attendance would plummet.
Fast forward eleven months, though, and the Panthers are sitting quite pretty.
Their attendance, yes, has bottomed out — they’re hovering right around 10,000 per game, and that’s including the sell-outs they witness when big market teams come to town. To put that in perspective, the Carolina Hurricanes — also experiencing a dip in attendance — draw nearly two thousand more fans per game than Florida; the Arizona Coyotes, who average just under 14,000 fans a night, are drawing thirty percent more fans than the surprisingly high-performing Panthers.
For the first time in nearly a decade, though, the Panthers are looking like a respectable on-ice team; even with the coinciding injuries to both starting netminder Roberto Luongo and backup Al Montoya, they’re managing to take home just enough wins to keep them in a legitimate hunt for a playoff position. Mind you, it’s not even a full season after they sat in 29th overall.
They’re also able to go to bed knowing that all the fans showing up for games are there because they want to be — at least, more so than when people would wander in with a free ticket in hand because well, why not? They’ve even been able to turn their goaltending controversy into a way to jump-start the fanbase a bit more — with their Goal of a Lifetime competition.
Sportsnet reported that more than 1,500 amateur goaltenders applied for the chance to receive a walk-on tryout to be the team’s ‘goaltender for a day’ — including Linda Cohn, ESPN anchor and former collegiate goaltender. The applicants came from 42 states and fifteen countries, but plenty were from the Sunshine State itself — and with the hockey world watching, two of them got the chance to compete in a shootout during Florida’s intermission Tuesday night.
Bill Ruggiero, 34, and Dustin Smith, 27, are both former goaltenders with professional experience — Ruggiero is a retired IHL netminder, while smith (much like Cohn) tended net in college and took the ice for a few practices with the Nashville Predators at one point in time. Each of them stood there while retired NHLers Radek Dvorak and Marco Sturm took turns taking shootout attempts at them — and after each contestant managed to stop three of the four shots taken at them, the team declared them ‘co-winners’. They’ll both get a chance to be the team’s goaltender for an official practice, and they’ll be on standby to suit up during games this season — preventing goalie coach Robb Tallas from having to rush into his gear again.
What does this mean for Florida?
Largely, nothing. Roberto Luongo is still day-to-day, but the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are both doing so poorly that they could, in theory, get the opportunity to wriggle into the post-season prior to his return to the ice. The likelihood of either Smith of Ruggiero getting the chance to truly stand behind the Panthers in a game is slim to none.
Few can say, though, that they weren’t Panthers fans during the fateful game which saw Luongo and Montoya both return to the crease post-injury just to help the team out; and for maybe the most mocked team in the NHL, that’s got to be a bright spot on what’s already been a pretty grin-evoking season. The fact that 1,500 netminders flocked to the Sunshine State alone gives the team a cool memory from the first season that saw a sluggish rebuild yielding true results — and in among the mumps, suspensions, and Toronto Maple Leafs drama, that’s about all the NHL can ask for.