Strangely, tonight will mark only the fifteenth time in Canucks history that the club will play a game in South Florida. In a way, it’s remarkable that the two teams — linked over the years by a number of major trades — have played each other so few times.
Despite the fact that the Panthers have been in the NHL since 1993, there is little competitive history between the two organizations. While the clubs will add to that total tonight, let us take a brief trip back in history to the first time the Canucks took their talents to South Beach.
Part of the reason the Panthers and Canucks have played each other so few times is simple geography. Because they are not in the same conference, they face-off against one another, at most, twice a season. Even then, however, the NHL found a way to inhibit any potential rivalry further by forcing two lockout-shortened seasons (where no inter-conference games were played) and wiping out the entire 2004-05 season. Compound that with the decision to play only one game between Northwest and Southeast division teams from 2001 to 2012 and – voila! – the end result is 15 Canuck-Panther games in South Florida, instead of 23.
But that was not always the case.
Back in 1993-94, the NHL schedule was 84 games in length, and there were still only 26 teams. The Panthers were competing in their inaugural campaign and played every team in the Western Conference twice, including the Canucks. The first of these match-ups came on February 13, 1994.
In an expansion year, most teams are out of the playoff picture by this point in the season. Not so the Panthers, who were quietly fashioning the best expansion record in NHL history. At this stage in the season, not only were the Panthers still competing for a playoff spot, the team was in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and four games above .500. Florida coach (and Canuck legend) Roger Neilson had crafted a defensive identity for the first-year Panthers, building from all-star goalie John Vanbiesbrouck on out. The club didn’t score a lot of goals, but it was an elite defensive unit – finishing the year with the fourth-best goals against in the league. The offence was less than formidable, however, with noted snipers Scott Mellanby and future Canuck Jesse Belanger leading the way.
The Canucks, meanwhile, were failing to live up to preseason expectations. After starting the season an incredible 7-1-0, the team had played some fairly mediocre hockey ever since. Back-to-back Smythe Division banners were quickly becoming a distant memory, and the 28-26-2 Canucks stumbled into Miami led by usual suspects Pavel Bure, Kirk McLean, Trevor Linden, and Geoff Courtnall on the heels of a 3-2 win in Tampa the night before.
Although the Panthers now play in at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida (a Miami suburb), the club played its first few seasons at the now-defunct Miami Arena in the downtown area. The arena was not ideally suited to hockey, yet its 14,691 fans in attendance that night against the Canucks still represented a sellout crowd. Backup goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick had the start over the injured eventual Hart Trophy finalist, Vanbiesbrouck, who had recently sliced his right hand on an opponent’s skate.
The Panthers attempted to grind out every game, and this night was no different. Neilson had his charges playing a new style of hockey that would soon become known as the neutral-zone trap (Canucks coach Pat Quinn called it the “fallback style” at the time, as the term was not yet in widespread use). He would often instruct all five skaters to remain in the neutral zone the entire game. Having a lead would only further embolden the Panthers.
So it helped matters that Florida defenceman Brian Benning gave the Panthers an early 1-0 lead, just 3:03 into the game. Jyrki Lumme had taken an early penalty for the Canucks, and the Panthers capitalized on the power play.
Trying to sit on that one-goal lead for seemingly the last 57 minutes, the Canucks dominated possession and the shot clock the rest of the of the night. But they couldn’t beat an airtight Fitzpatrick. Expansion king Bob Kudelski would score another power play goal for the Panthers at 11:12 of the third period, but the Canucks would get that one back on the strength of a Dana Murzyn marker a couple of minutes later. The Canucks pressed for the equalizer the rest of the way, but despite outshooting the Panthers 34-15 on the evening, the Panthers would hold on for the 2-1 victory.
The win would leapfrog the Panthers into sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of the idle Washington Capitals. The Canucks, for their part, were upset and frustrated by the Panthers’ style of play.
“It’s not exciting to watch, and it’s not exciting to play,” said Sergio Momesso, whose goalie interference penalty in the third period resulted in the Kudelski game-winning goal, after a John McIntyre tripping minor put the Canucks down two players. “They’re really good at holding and putting their stick between your legs,” he continued.
Canuck star Pavel Bure took a late retaliation penalty against Panther Bill Lindsay (who had been slashing him) that effectively took him out of the game when referee Denis Morel gave the two players coincidental minors. “It was a bad play on Pavel’s part,” said coach Quinn, who emphasized that Bure probably should have displayed more discipline and played through Lindsay’s antics. “All you can do is hope the official calls it.”
Many of the Canucks criticized the new brand of hockey the Panthers played. Geoff Courtnall, in particular, was incensed. “This isn’t like playing hockey in a rink. It’s like playing in your basement,” he said. “If you’ve got a new market you want people to like hockey, not show them this.”
The Panthers would ultimately fall short in their bid to make the playoffs by a single point, although their .494 winning percentage would register as the best expansion season in NHL history. The loss dropped the Canucks to one game over .500, which was also, coincidentally, how the team would finish the season. The 1994 playoffs, of course, would be a much different story.