By Jameson Olive, Staff Writer
Florida is a hot bed for professional hockey — you probably just don’t know it.
Only a few years ago the only true part of that statement was “hot.” In recent years, however, the play of Florida’s hockey teams have almost matched the blistering temperatures that define the Sunshine State. Between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, hockey fans finally have something to cheer about in Florida and this season looks to be one of the best in history.
Two seasons ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were one game away from the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the eventual champion Boston Bruins. Last season, the team took a step back and missed the playoffs entirely. The Lightning’s tumble down the eastern conference standings was mostly attributed to the weak goaltending of the aging Dwayne Roloson and journeyman Mathieu Garon.
The team spent the offseason assessing this problem by trading for Nashville’s backup goalie Anders Lindback. Lindback posted a serviceable 2.42 GAA and .912 save percentage in his limited playtime backing up all-star Pekka Rinne. The organization is finally hoping they have acquired a goalie worthy of supporting their impressive offensive trio of Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavlier and Martin St. Louis. If Steven Stamkos can continue his role as the best scoring threat in the NHL alongside consistent goaltending then the Lighting are in line to contend for a playoff spot this season.
The Florida Panthers returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since the millennium. New general manager Dale Tallon quickly remodeled the team in his image before the 2012 season as the team began their rebuilding process. By most accounts the team was ahead of schedule when they won the southeast division last season. With Florida’s stellar prospect pool ripening into NHL players, the team only looks to improve over the upcoming seasons.
This year the team will usher in the arrival of former first round pick Jonathan Huberdeau. After an otherworldly season in juniors, the 19 year-old Huberdeau looks to make an impact on the pro level. The once docile Panthers are beginning to grow their claws and look to be a force in the southeast division once again this season.
The Southeast Division as a whole improved this off-season and both the Lightning and Panthers look to contend and possibly make the playoffs. While both teams have never made the playoffs in the same season, that could definitely change in the years to come. Steven Stamkos is already a proven superstar in the league and the Panthers are on the verge of producing their own stars through a strong prospect pool. Within the next few years, the state of Florida could have two or more of the games best offensive threats.
Although many Sunbelt hockey teams such as Dallas and Phoenix have been hemorrhaging money these past few seasons, the Lightning and Panthers have been managing to stay afloat. According to ESPN, last season the Lightning were on average filled to 96.2% capacity, while the Panthers saw an increase up to 86.6% attendance.
Florida’s abundance of snowbirds and transplant fans have helped keep the sport afloat in the sunshine state. While many fans originally went to games to see their former teams, many are now making the Panthers and Lightning their main rooting interest. Fans are now, more than ever starting to take pride in their new team and giving the Bolts and Panthers the home ice advantage they deserve.
All this said, the long-term effect of hockey in Florida has yet to be seen. If both the Lighting and Panthers continue to improve on the ice, the game looks to grow off the ice as well with the public. There is no telling how the success of these teams could affect the growth of hockey in Florida. A decade of winning could lead to a whole generation of young Floridians picking up hockey sticks and heading to their local rinks.
For now, all we can do is wait and enjoy as we watch the sport and our teams grow before our eyes.