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A Goal In Sight

The expansion Florida Panthers are (surprise!) shooting for a playoff spot

Head north on 1-95 out of Miami, then east on Hollywood Boulevard. Before long the idea of hockey in South Florida doesn't seem so absurd.

Every winter an estimated 1½ million Canadians migrate to the Sunshine State. The mecca for Quebecois is Hollywood Beach, where newsstands earn.' du Maurier cigarettes and Le Journal de Montreal, and every other car, it seems, has Quebec license plates bearing the motto JE ME SOUVIENS. "I remember."

Jacques Demers remembers. The coach of the Montreal Canadiens remembers the good old days when an expansion team on the schedule meant a sure two points and a chance for the players to pad their scoring totals. First-year teams won maybe a dozen games all season and looked forward to the draft. Similar ignominy awaited the Florida Panthers, Demers predicted during training camp. "They'll lose 60 or 65 games," he said, "like a normal expansion team."

Four games against the Panthers—three losses and a tie—forced Demers to revise his prediction. After watching Florida embarrass his defending Stanley Cup champions 8-3 at Miami Arena on Jan. 24 and listening to the Panther fans chant "We want nine," Demers had become a believer. "They'll make the playoffs," he conceded. "And whoever plays them better be careful. The Panthers are for real."

This is no ordinary expansion team. It seems safe to say that Florida is the only NHL club with a Spanish-speaking radio announcer who casually drops bullfighting allusions into his play-by-play. And no team holds on to a lead like las Panteras: Thirty-four times this season they have scored first in a game, and they have lost only five of those contests. Employing coach Roger Neilson's infamous, yawn-inducing neutral zone trap in front of goalies John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick, the Panthers have been out of just two games all season. Through Saturday they were 20-17-10, seventh in the Eastern Conference, and on a pace for 89 points. The record for an expansion team is 73, shared by the 1967-68 Philadelphia Flyers and the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers.

The success of the Panthers is a fish bone in the craw of the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning. If the playoffs were be ginning this week, Tampa's downstate conference-mates would be in, while the Lightning would not. This nascent rivalry has yet to reach the status of, say, Calgary-Edmonton, but it might get there. Lightning general manager Phil Esposito did his part in the preseason by referring to the Panthers as pussycats.

Espo has stopped using that pejorative, and with good reason: In five tries this season his team went 0-3-2 against the upstarts. Tampa Bay's final regular-season crack at Florida came on Jan. 26 at the ThunderDome, where Vanbiesbrouck stopped 40 of 41 shots, securing a 1-1 tie for the Panthers.

After Beezer, whose .934 save percentage through Saturday led the league, it is impossible to pinpoint Florida's best player. Some nights it's right wing Scott Mellanby, the rugged former Flyer and Edmonton Oiler who has blossomed into a scorer for the Panthers. Some nights it's right wing Bob Kudelski, whom Florida acquired—some might say rescued—from the Ottawa Senators in a Jan. 6 trade and whose 30 goals make him the closest thing the Panthers have to a sniper. Some nights it's center Brian Skrudland, the tenacious former Canadien whom Neilson made his captain. All of Florida's skaters evince the scrappiness that was the hallmark of Panther general manager Bobby Clarke, though none has near the talent of the three-time NHL Most Valuable Player. Most were considered expendable by their previous teams.

The players aren't the only rejects in this story. In August 1992 the New York Islanders were sold, and the new owners made no secret of their opinion that then chairman Bill Torrey, the man who had engineered the Isles' early-1980s' dynasty, was old and in the way. Panther owner Wayne Huizenga thought differently and hired the 58-year-old Torrey last April as his club's first president. For his part, Clarke, 44, had become expensive window dressing in the front office of the Flyers, for whom he was vice-president in charge of ribbon-cuttings. "I had a position but not a job," he says. Neilson, 59, was the victim of a nasty mutiny in New York, where he was fired by the Rangers in the middle of last season. Given new life in the Sun Belt, this trio of heretofore grumpy old men has assembled the best expansion team in NHL history.

With the Heat cold, the Dolphins done and the Marlins idle, the Panthers have become the hottest ticket in town. The club has averaged 94% capacity at the 14,500-seat Miami Arena. Hired 100 days before the start of the season, vice-president of marketing Dean Jordan and his staff worked feverishly to sell 8,500 season tickets. They bought advertising in English-and Spanish-language media outlets and in papers serving the snowbird market. They even asked their counterparts with the Montreal Expos if they would stuff some Panther literature in with their season-ticket renewal forms. Thanks to Huizenga's baseball connections, it was done.

South Florida's Latino population has been slow to respond to ice hockey, one of the reasons Huizenga is considering building the Panthers a new arena farther north, near Hollywood. For a week in late August seven Panther players toured Miami as hockey missionaries, conducting clinics on a portable street hockey rink, signing plastic pucks and explaining the difference between icing and off-sides. Says Skrudland, "In Little Havana this one kid kept telling me, 'I'm a ballplayer, not a hockey player.' I wanted to talk him into giving hockey a try, but that was the only English he knew."

Another way to sell hockey to Hispanics: Make it sound like soccer-thus the Panthers' decision to hire Arley Londono to announce their games for a local Spanish-language radio station, WCMQ. Londono, a Colombian who has done play-by-play for many World Cup games in his native country, is renowned for his passionate calls. After each Panther goal he shouts, "iRuge, Pantera!" "ROOO-hay, Pantera" is how it sounds; "Roar, Panther" is what it means.

Londono then shouts, "Goal!"—a word he has been known to stretch out, air-raid-sirenlike, for as long as half a minute. In the 8-3 win against Montreal, his most impassioned call was inspired by Tom Fitzgerald's goal, which made the score 4-0. Londono's enunciation of that "goooal" took 11 seconds.

It took him only seven seconds to spit out the g-word for the fifth Panther score, which, for Londono, is downright abrupt. He then added, "No hay quinto mala," which according to his producer, Julio Romero, is an old bullfighting expression meaning, "There isn't a bad fifth one." In bullfighting, Romero explains, "the fifth bull is traditionally the best."

The fifth bull on Florida's roster is the guy whose last name is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question: Who is the only NHL goalie whose name contains all five vowels? Vanbiesbrouck is the franchise cornerstone. "The guy has stolen game after game after game for us," says Skrudland. Florida's brass admits its selection of the 30-year-old Beezer as the first pick in last June's expansion draft was both a hockey and a marketing decision: He is handsome, articulate and the only Panther with true marquee value.

Vanbiesbrouck, who played 10 years with the Rangers, is still beloved by New Yorkers. Beezer's return to Madison Square Garden for the recent All-Star Game was a story no hockey scribe could resist. Among the questions he fielded from reporters was this: John, when you're playing this well, does the puck seem as big as a watermelon?

"If it did, and they scored on me," he answered, "that would mean I couldn't stop a watermelon, wouldn't it?"

Vanbiesbrouck's happiness in Florida stands in stark opposition to his suffering last season. Riddled with dissension, the Rangers underachieved dramatically and failed to make the playoffs. In April, Vanbiesbrouck's older brother, Frank, committed suicide. "So many negative things," says Vanbiesbrouck. "This year has been about opportunity and the freshness of playing in Florida. The contrast couldn't be greater."

The Rangers traded him last June to the Vancouver Canucks, who didn't really want him either. Don't be too flattered, they told him when they made the deal; we snagged you so that we didn't have to expose our goalies in the expansion draft.

"Then out of the blue I get a call from Roger," recalls Vanbiesbrouck. We're going to take you, Neilson told his former player. To gain the right to select the first goaltender in the expansion draft, however, the Panthers had to win a coin flip with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the other expansion team.

Had Florida lost the flip, Beezer believes, the Canucks would have traded him to Winnipeg. This was nothing less than a 68-degree coin toss—the difference in average winter temperature between Winnipeg and Miami. "Heads," said Torrey. Heads it was.

Despite Vanbiesbrouck's virtuosity the Panthers began the season playing like an expansion team usually does. On the night of Nov. 3, after having arrived at their Toronto hotel at 4 a.m., the Panthers were waxed by the Maple Leafs 6-3. The loss dropped Florida to 4-7-3. But they rebounded with three straight road wins, at Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa. On Dec. 12 they faced the Dallas Stars at Reunion Arena in their fifth road game in eight nights. For 20 minutes they played like a tired team. Trailing 4-1 after one period, the Panthers clawed their way back for a 4-4 tie. So inspired by the comeback was Florida TV analyst Denis Potvin, the Hall of Famer and former Islander, that he stormed into the dressing room afterward and declared, "I would be proud to play for this team!"

He would also be bored. Neilson's philosophy is to frustrate opponents, forcing them into mistakes. Fire-wagon hockey it is not. In the dressing room before the Panthers' last game against their whipping boys, the Canadiens, which was to be televised in Canada, left wing Dave Lowry piped up: "All right, you guys, let's get out there and...put Canada to sleep!"

After 40 minutes the score was 6-1, and it was Skrudland's turn to speak. "Let's stick it in a little deeper," said the former Canadien. After the game he fibbed to reporters, saying, "I don't get any satisfaction from beating my ex-teammates."

"Yeah, right," said left wing Mike Hough, who spent the last seven years playing for Quebec. "And I get no pleasure—none whatsoever—that we're doing better than the Nordiques."

Hough, Skrudland and Jody Hull make up the team's checking line, a designation that seems unnecessary on this roster full of grinders. "Everyone checks on this team," says Clarke. "We don't have anyone afraid to play the game. We go in the corners, we go in front of the net, we take the hits. We scratch and claw and work."

And ruge.



With support from the avid fans of the panther patrol (far left), Hull and co. have elevated their play.



Neilson pointedly stresses tough D.



Vanbiesbrouck has kept opponents out of his crease and off the board.



Canadian snowbirds love Florida more than the Habs, who have a habit of losing to the Panthers.