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The Florida Panthers are a professional ice hockey team who play in the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida/Miami, Florida suburb of Sunrise. They began playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) as a 1993 expansion team.
Blockbuster Video magnate Wayne Huizenga was awarded an NHL franchise for his native Miami in 1992. The team played at the Miami Arena, and its first major stars were New York Rangers goaltender castoff John Vanbiesbrouck, rookie Rob Niedermayer, and Scott Mellanby, who scored 30 goals. They had one of the most successful first seasons of any expansion team, finishing one point below .500 and narrowly missing out on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
After missing another close brush with the playoffs in 1995, coach Roger Neilson was fired and replaced by Doug MacLean. They then acquired Ray Sheppard from the San Jose Sharks on the trade deadline in 1996 and they looked towards the playoffs for the first time.
Also during that season, a very unusual goal celebration developed in Miami. On the night of the Panthers' '95-'96 home opener, a rat scurried across the Florida locker room. Mellanby reacted by "one-timing" the rat against the wall, killing it. That night he scored two goals, which Vanbiesbrouck quipped was "a rat trick". Two nights later, as the story found its way into the world, a few fans threw rubber rats on the ice in celebration of a goal. The rubber rat count went from 16 for the third home game to over 2,000 during the playoffs. In a freak coincidence, 1996 was also year of the rat according to Chinese Astrology.
In the 1996 playoffs, as the #4 seed, the Panthers beat the Boston Bruins in 5 games, then upset the top seeded Philadelphia Flyers in six, and then the second seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in seven to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Their opponents, the Colorado Avalanche, swept the Panthers in four games. Following the Panthers' two goals in the first period of game three, the Avs’ Patrick Roy spoke to his teammates, declaring there would be "no more rats." The Panthers did not score another goal, and Roy finished the series with a 1.00 goals against average.
The Panthers would begin the next season with a 17-game unbeaten streak, but due to injuries and a couple of questionable personnel moves (the acquisition of Kirk Muller at the trade deadline as well as the earlier trade of popular center Stu Barnes), Florida faded in the second half of the season, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Wayne Gretzky-led Rangers in five games.
The 1997-98 season would be a return to mediocrity for the Panthers. After a 7-12-4 start, the Panthers fired coach Doug MacLean, replacing him for the season with General Manager Bryan Murray. The change didn't aid matters, as Florida suffered a franchise-worst 24-43-15 record, including a 15-game winless streak. This season would also mark the end of Disneyworld for Vanbiesbrouck, who in the midst of that streak was shelled by the Chicago Blackhawks and never played another game for the Panthers. He would sign with the Flyers that offseason as a free agent.
The Panthers moved into the National Car Rental Center (now known as BankAtlantic Center) in 1998. In 1999, they acquired Pavel Bure (the "Russian Rocket"), in a blockbuster trade with the Vancouver Canucks. They reached the playoffs again in 2000, losing in a first-round sweep to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils.
The team slumped in 2000-01. The following season, 2001-02, the Panthers had their worst record ever. Bure struggled despite being reunited with his brother Valeri, and was traded to the Rangers on the 2002 trading deadline.
The Cats started coveting defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who was widely tipped to be picked first overall in 2002, around then. But controversial bench boss “Iron Mike” Keenan sent Florida's first pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who took winger Rick Nash. The Atlanta Thrashers, after secondly picking goalie Kari Lehtonen, announced that the Panthers had given them two picks to guarantee that Bouwmeester went to Miami. Bouwmeester was selected third overall. "We shouldn’t have done that ... Jay would have been number-one if we'd kept that pick," said Keenan.
In 2003, the Panthers hosted the NHL All-Star Weekend in which the Western Conference earned a 6-5 victory after the first OT shootout in All-Star history. The West overcame a four-goal outburst by Thrash winger Dany Heatley, who took home MVP honors in his first All-Star Game.
On June 23, 2006, Florida was again involved in a blockbuster trade with Vancouver, sending Roberto Luongo, Lukas Krajicek, and a sixth-round draft pick in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen.