Gameday 58: Divorce Court

Right off the bat here, the title is in reference to the supposed “marriage” between the mascots of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Iceburgh, and the Florida Panthers, Stanley C. Panther on February 5, All-Star Weekend:

I became a Penguins fan back in 1994, right around when NHL ’94 came out. I missed out on the back-to-back Stanley Cups of 1991 and 1992, but the team was still more or less a Cup contender through 1996 when they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals to face a Panthers team that was in its third year in the League. It was a hard fought series, but the Penguins took a 3-2 series lead into Game 6. Pittsburgh lost on the road 4-3 on the strength of a Rob Niedermayer goal with about 6 minutes left in the game, and then the Panthers clinched their trip to the Finals with a 3-1 win in Pittsburgh in Game 7. I was 12 years old, and it was probably the first time I cried about a sports team I cared about losing a playoff series.

The Panthers would go on to get swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the Cup Finals, and just got totally smoked in the process, with Florida scoring just four goals the entire series compared to Colorado’s 15. It was also the second of four straight Cup Finals that were sweeps. Embarrassing for the Panthers, and really disappointing for Pittsburgh, as that would have been an amazing Finals. The Penguins would make the playoffs each of the next five years, at the end losing in the Conference Finals in 2001 to the New Jersey Devils. Meanwhile, Florida has made the playoffs six times in the last 25 years, including the past two postseasons, but they have yet to escape the first round in any of those appearances.

Circling back to the “marriage”…who the hell gave that wedding their blessing? And why? There are so many things wrong with that whole thing, not the least of which is the fact that the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals will always weigh heavy in my mind.

Anyway, this is the third and final meeting of the season between these two teams. Back when they last met on November 11, the season was still very much in its infancy as it was game #12 for Pittsburgh and game #14 for Florida. Since then, both teams have had their flirtations with first in their respective divisions, but both teams are now in second place (Pittsburgh is technically in third due to tiebreakers). For a team that is usually known for its goal prevention, largely because they’ve never had any consistent offensive producers, the Panthers are currently the team with the best offense in the League, at least as far as goals per game goes.

They have nine players in double digits for goals, with three more (including old friend Patric Hornqvist) at 8. At 28 years old, Jonathan Huberdeau is finally worth taking seriously as he leads the League in assists and is third behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl for the League lead in points. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovski is still getting the job done as he sits in the third tier of goaltenders in terms of goals saved above expected.

Both teams come into tonight’s game having had a modest break in between games. The Penguins might get back Teddy Blueger for tonight’s game.