The Florida Panthers are making some noise in the Southeast Division.
After a setting a dubious record that has Florida excluded from the dance for 10 consecutive seasons, the Panthers are making their faithful (and maybe some new), fans sit up and take notice.
No longer are the Cats a disappointment. Even though it's still early in the season, the Panthers are currently right in the thick of the race for a playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Florida is currently on pace for a 104-point season, but there are still 67 games left to play. There is a lot left to prove, and Florida needs to concentrate on continuing to do the things that have been working early in the season.
OK, so it's an ad campaign designed to get butts parked in the seats, but it has also come to stand for a re-energized NHL franchise that is thus far refusing to go away.
Original six fans and most fans north of the border are often disdainful of any team that is not based out of a traditional hockey market. When opposing teams score in Bank Atlantic Center, usually the cheers are just as loud as for the home team.
It wasn't always that way. "We See Red" harkens back to the mid-90's, when the upstart Panthers pushed all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
For a time, each of the three teams fielded a below average product on the ice, and fans stayed away in droves. Hockey fans are only human, after all.
When those teams started to come alive, the fans started packing the house. The management in Sunrise understands this, and hopes to duplicate what happened in those three cities.
With nine goals and 36 assists, the Panthers have the highest scoring defensive corps in the NHL.
New acquisition Brian Campbell leads the group with a goal and 14 assists, with Dmitry Kulikov not far behind, with 11 helpers of his own.
Jason Garrison leads the defensemen with six goals and has also assisted on two others, while Mike Weaver rounds out the high-flying group with six assists.
These four represent half of Florida's top eight scorers.
Florida's penalty kill is ranked 24th in the NHL, at 75.6 percent—not the most efficient PK unit in memory for the Panthers.
To the Panthers credit, this poor PK percentage is partly offset by Florida only having been shorthanded 41 times through their first 15 games, leading the NHL.
The result of this particular mix of statistics is that the Panthers have allowed 10 power play goals so far, right in the middle of the NHL pack, and are ranked 16th in the league.
Florida's plan all along was to keep Jacob Markstrom with the San Antonio Rampage for one more season of experience before bringing him up as the goaltending heir apparent in Sunrise.
After Scott Clemmensen started the season with an injury, Markstrom had to make an early appearance as Florida's No. 2 goaltender. He impressed with a 2-2-1 record, a .944 save percentage and a 2.05 GAA.
The front office had to make a largely unpopular decision by sending Markstrom back to the Rampage when Clemmensen got healthy. While it's true that Markstrom has little left to prove short of the NHL level, Florida needs to let Clemmensen get some work in at the top level before he proves attractive to other NHL teams in need of a second backstop.
Markstrom is undoubtedly the future of Florida goaltending, and we will see him next season, likely even this season. Until then, Jose Theodore and Clemmensen are good enough to keep Florida a viable playoff team.
Along with Florida's surprising defensive scoring, Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg have put up 43 points in 15 games.
Versteeg leads the group with eight goals and nine assists. Fleischmann has five goals and nine assists and Weiss has five goals and seven assists.
The three were each with different teams last season, and have in a relatively short time built a rare and effective chemistry. They are only going to get more familiar with each other as the season goes on.
David Booth had been popular as the Panther with the second longest tenure with the team, but the front office did well by shedding his and Steven Reinprecht's cap hit.
In return, the Panthers picked up two viable scoring threats in Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. The duo both have averaged one half point per game over their careers, each a match for Booth's career numbers.
The two recent additions are both better two-way players than Booth was. They have solid career plus/minus ratings: plus-65 for Sturm and a plus-55 for Samuelsson, versus a minus-22 for Booth.
Florida has been showing a certain fire early in the season.
With role players Jack Skille, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky skating like they're already in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it seems like it will only be a matter of time before their consistency is rewarded with an actual playoff appearance.
The trade of Florida's most popular player left behind a message to the rest of the team—nobody is untouchable, and everyone is expected to pull their weight in every game.
Florida has scored game-tying or go-ahead goals in the last four minutes of regulation six times in their first 15 games. This includes two against Buffalo, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 regulation win on October 29.
These late heroics have showed that Florida can't be counted out when things don't seem to go their way.
By staying close, the Panthers have shown that they have the ability to close. Jason Garrison showcases his rocket shots regularly from the blue line, Brian Campbell quarterbacks the Cats in the offensive zone and the first line is a threat every time they are on the ice.
Opponents can't rest until the final horn.
Florida has racked up 14 goals in 58 opportunities this season. The 24.1 percent success rate places the Cats firmly in the NHL's Top Five.
Kris Versteeg is tied for third in the NHL with four power-play goals, while Brian Campbell is tied for the league lead with 10 power-play assists and 11 power-play points total. Sean Bergenheim added one shorthanded goal for the Cats.
In total, eight Florida players have scored power-play goals.
The Panthers have played in 15 games this year, and in only four have failed to pick up a point. Of their seven losses, three have been in overtime.
It would be nice to take home two points every game, but what in last season would have been regulation losses have in this season been extended to overtime, assuring the Cats of at least one point.
At this point last season, the Cats were 7-8-0, and already on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. In fact, this is the best record the Panthers have had after 15 games since the 1996-97 season saw the team off to a 10-1-4 record.
An overtime loss is a free point, and far better than no points at all.