Panthers' run to Stanley Cup Final evokes memories of 1996


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Aug 05, 2023

Panthers' run to Stanley Cup Final evokes memories of 1996

LAS VEGAS -- Tom Fitzgerald is balancing this week between his responsibilities

LAS VEGAS -- Tom Fitzgerald is balancing this week between his responsibilities as general manager of the New Jersey Devils and being a proud father and Florida Panthers alumnus.

Fitzgerald will leave the 2023 NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo on Wednesday to fly to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he'll continue to work remotely, to join his family in rooting on son Casey Fitzgerald, a Panthers defenseman, in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights at FLA Live Arena in nearby Sunrise on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; TNT, TBS, truTV, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Florida trails the best-of-7 series 2-0 and could use a boost in the next two games at home.

"I'm a Panther fan for obvious reasons being an alumni and watching my son," Tom Fitzgerald said. "Casey hasn't played much for the Panthers this year, but he's part of that team, so just going down there to support him and enjoy it."

Tom and Casey Fitzgerald are the 17th father-son duo to each play in a Cup Final, according to NHL Stats. Casey, who made his Cup Final debut in a 7-2 loss in Game 2 on Monday, wasn't born until the year after Florida's Cinderella run to its lone previous Cup Final appearance in 1996, but he's heard stories about it from his father.

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An original Panther after being selected in the 1993 NHL Expansion Draft, Tom Fitzgerald refers to his five seasons in Florida (1993-98) as "the best days of my life" as a player.

"I played close to 400 games (353) there and it was special place," said Fitzgerald, a forward who played 1,097 games over 17 NHL seasons before retiring in 2006. "My two older boys were born there, and that Cup Final was just magical. How special that was being that underdog team and just knocking off giants as we went along.

"Hope they move a little further along than we did in '96."

The 1996 Panthers ran out of magic against the Colorado Avalanche and were swept in four games, including a 1-0 triple-overtime loss in Game 4. Before that, Fitzgerald scored arguably the biggest goal in Panthers' history -- prior to Matthew Tkachuk's series-clinching goal in Game 4 of Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes -- with a long-distance slap shot past goalie Tom Barrasso for the winner at 6:18 of the third period in a 3-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the 1996 conference final.

"It was pretty cool because he scored the game-winning goal in the conference final back then, and Matthew scored the game-winner in the conference final here," Casey Fitzgerald said, "so it was cool just for our family. He's made a lot of comparisons to our team and his team back then."

Tom Fitzgerald isn't the only member of the 1996 team to marvel at the parallels to Florida's run this season. Although the makeups of the teams are different, their paths have been similarly surprising.

"Probably the biggest similarity is nobody expected the '96 team to do much, and we were able to accomplish a lot," 1996 Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said.

After qualifying as the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the East this season, the Panthers eliminated three of the top four teams in the NHL in points during the regular season. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against the Boston Bruins, which set NHL records with 65 wins and 135 points, to win in seven games, before defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs (fourth in points) in five games and the Hurricanes (second) in four to reach the Cup Final.

Florida qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 1996 as the No. 4 seed in the East and knocked off Ray Bourque and Boston in five games in the first round before upsetting the Eric Lindros-led Philadelphia Flyers, who were top seed in the East, in six games in the second round.

Then they overcame a 3-2 series deficit to shock Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the high-powered Penguins in the conference final.

"When you look back, you start to wonder, 'How did we get that done?'" said Ed Jovanovski, a studio analyst on Panthers broadcasts for Bally Sports Florida who was a 19-year-old rookie defenseman in 1996. "Especially against that powerhouse team, winning a big Game 6 (at home) and then going into Pittsburgh and winning a huge Game 7, a close, hard-fought game. But it kind of boils down to you never know, right? You've got to play the game."

Like current Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Vanbiesbrouck was one of their main catalysts in the 1996 playoffs, when he was 12-10 with a 2.25 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and one shutout. Vanbiesbrouck made 39 saves in Game 7 at Pittsburgh and stopped 55 shots before losing his triple OT goaltending duel with Patrick Roy in Game 4 against Colorado.

"With all the players in our room, Vanbiesbrouck was the one superstar," said Bill Lindsay, who played seven seasons for the Panthers (1993-99 and 2001-02) and is now their radio color analyst. "The goalies are different cats. I'd throw 'Beezer' in that category. He just did his thing and when a goalie does that, I can tell you sitting on the bench what kind of confidence that gives you."

Unlike the current Panthers with Aleksander Barkov and Tkachuk, the 1996 team didn't have a lot of high-end offensive skill, but made up for it with its depth, relentless work ethic and stifling team defense.

Video: 96 Cup Final, Gm3: Panthers fans rain plastic rats

"These guys are a much more talented team than we had," said 1996 Panthers forward Ray Sheppard. "It was a lot of guys that were nearing the end of their career and some young guys that were just starting their careers. With Vanbiesbrouck, (forward) Scott Mellanby and guys like that, it just kind of took a hold of South Florida and kind of got hockey started here."

After some lean seasons -- Florida didn't win a playoff series after 1996 until the first round against the Washington Capitals last season -- the 1996 Panthers are enjoying the excitement and sellout crowds at FLA Live Arena during these playoffs. The atmosphere is reminiscent of what they experienced at Miami Arena 27 years ago.

"This team, and kind of the way they've played with this sort of heart and guts, now you get the electricity back I saw in the early years around South Florida," Lindsay said.

That includes the fan tradition of throwing plastic rats on the ice, though, because it could result in a delay of game penalty, it's now reserved for the end of playoff wins instead of following each Florida goal. The custom stemmed from Mellanby killing a rat in the Panthers locker room before a game against the Calgary Flames early in the 1995-96 season and then scoring two goals, which Vanbiesbrouck dubbed, "a rat trick."

"And it was the Year of the Rat (in the Chinese Zodiac) back in '96, too," Tom Fitzgerald said. "Everything was just aligned for us, I guess."

Tom Fitzgerald feels more connected to the current Panthers because of Casey, despite him being mostly an extra since being claimed off waivers from the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 11. Before Game 2 of the Cup Final, the 26-year-old's lone playoff appearance was Game 4 of the first round.

Still, if Florida comes back against Vegas, Fitzgerald will do something his father couldn't as a player and get his name on the Stanley Cup (Tom won the Cup as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh in 2009).

"That's the difference," Casey said. "We're going to get it done. He couldn't back then, but he's pulling for us now, which is great."