Players on ice and coaches on hot seats, these are the thermodynamics of life in the NHL

As the Florida Panthers introduce another new head coach, in this case former NHL defenseman Bob Boughner, I turn once more to the three things that were taught to me when first covering the sport in South Florida’s expansion season of 1993-94.

Florida Panthers Name Bob Boughner Head Coach

First, a good nickname will get you a long way in hockey. Boughner, pronounced BOOG-nur, was known as The Boogieman in his days as a player with Buffalo, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Calgary and, oh, just about every other team in the league.

Second, it’s a good thing when your goalie is standing on his head. This is hockey talk. It need bear no relation to reality.

Third, things happen in an almighty hurry in the NHL, especially when it comes to the hiring and firing of head coaches. This makes six of them in the last seven years for the Panthers, who are doing the near impossible by keeping pace with Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.

Way back in 2000, the Panthers were playing New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs and I was doing my best to appear somewhat knowledgable in preview coverage of the series. Hockey is not my sport. Having grown up in South Florida, it is barely my planet. Still, it was so far so good until the Devils fired their head coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs just ahead.

New Jersey was first in the Eastern Conference at the time, and Ftorek, though dealing with a late-season slump, had a two-year winning percentage of .641 as the Devils’ coach. Crazy? Yes, but so was the production of his replacement, Larry Robinson, who was behind the bench for a first-round sweep of the Panthers and, eventually, a win over the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.

Does it really matter who is coaching a hockey team? Seems to me it’s more about developing momentum among a group of players who trust each other enough to fight together and kill penalties together and grow beards together. That, plus a whole lot of goaltenders standing on their heads.

The whole thing is a mystery to me, as strange as being in Nashville last month for a vacation and seeing “Welcome Hockey Fans” at the entrance to every honky-tonk on Broadway.

[When fishing for NBA whales, better know the particular traits of each enormous species]

[Predicting a 4-1 start to the season for the Miami Dolphins]

[Malik Zaire is what the Gators want, but what they need is for Feleipe Franks to start]

Good luck to Boughner finding that same kind of magic in Sunrise. It happened once before in Miami, with the Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Final in only their third year of existence and briefly turning South Beach into the North Pole.

They, too, had a fiery rookie head coach, a guy named Doug MacLean, and he really had it going for a while. Two playoff appearances in two seasons, and then an abrupt firing just 23 games into the third.

Is this any way to run a hockey franchise?

Apparently, it’s the only way.

 

Plucky Heat crew approaching some of the Big Three’s best streaks

 

A bit of perspective on the Miami Heat’s eight-game win streak, which might stretch longer but stretches the imagination either way.

The Heat only topped this streak five times during the Big Three era.

Miami Heat's Dion Waiters passes the ball in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami Heat’s Dion Waiters passes the ball in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

One of those times they absolutely crushed it, ripping off 27 wins in a row in February and March of 2013, but the rest of their runs were more in line with what Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic and the fellas are doing now.

Twelve in a row a couple of times for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company, plus single streaks of 10 and nine games each.

I don’t have to tell you that those Heat teams were worlds better than this one. Four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Two championships. Yeah, worlds better than the 2016-17 crew, which against all odds has pushed the record all the way up to 19-30, still outside the wide playoff net.

That’s what blows your mind. Eight straight wins are exceedingly tough to get in any major sport. What’s needed is a highly talented group on a hot streak, not a roster running on fumes.

Here is a listing of the most recent streaks of eight wins or longer for South Florida’s other pro franchises.

Miami Dolphins – Eight wins in a row, 1985. That team was quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Dan Marino and played in the Super Bowl the previous season. The streak included seven in a row to end the regular season plus a playoff win over Cleveland.

Miami Marlins – Nine wins in a row, 2008. We’re going back to the old football-stadium days here and a Marlins payroll that was the lowest in the major leagues. Still, there was a talented group of players on the roster, like Hanley Ramirez and Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson and Dan Uggla, and the final record of 84-77 showed that.

Florida Panthers – Twelve wins in a row, 2015-16. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this streak was the longest ever for a team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs the previous season. The Panthers had plenty of talent, though, enough to win the Atlantic Division and reach the postseason for just the fifth time in franchise history.

Does Erik Spoelstra have a playoff team at the moment, or a team that should surpass .500 by season’s end, or a team led by a Hall of Famer? Certainly not, but the Heat have won eight in a row just the same.

South Florida fans have seen some astonishing win streaks, of course, like 34 in a row by the Miami Hurricanes from 2000-02 and 18 in a row by the dynastic Dolphins (17-0 in 1972 and a win to open the next season).

[Palm Beach County is state’s spring-training showcase now]

[A little candy to treat Dolphins fans sick of Patriots in Super Bowl]

[College football scoring average tops 30 points, and Gators aren’t close]

Can’t let this current Heat run get lost in the shuffle, though. It shouldn’t be happening. No matter the quality of the competition during the streak, from Golden State to lowly Brooklyn, it shouldn’t be happening. The franchise, left behind by LeBron and Dwyane, is making something uncommon happen with a fairly common cast of characters, a specialty of Pat Riley’s organization for some time.

Florida Panthers’ win streak is over but appreciation goes on

The Florida Panthers pushed their amazing win streak to 12 games before losing a 3-2 overtime killer at Vancouver on Monday night.

Now maybe they’ll start a new streak Wednesday night at Calgary or maybe they’ll revert to their wishy-washy ways, as one Sports Illustrated expert suggests on the basis of hockey analytics.

Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr congratulates center Aleksander Barkov on his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Ottawa, Ontario. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
OTTAWA, Ontario -Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr congratulates center Aleksander Barkov (16) on his goal during a game against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 7, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

I don’t know anything about hockey analytics. Truth is, I barely comprehend how a Zamboni works.

All that’s certain is the Panthers deserve a ton of credit for flirting with NHL history. The league’s record winning streak is 17 games set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins, a team featuring Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

Hey, wait a minute. Jagr is still playing all these years later at the age of 43, and for the Panthers, no less.

Whether there is more magic coming for the Panthers franchise this season is up to the Nordic gods, I suppose. If nothing else we must pause to compare what this team accomplished against the other major league outfits in our area.

As you might guess, the Marlins don’t measure up very well in this category heralding consistent success.

Longest win streaks for South Florida teams

Team                                     Streak                             Year       

Miami Heat                           27 games                              2013

Miami Dolphins                   18 games                       1972 plus 1 ’73 game

Florida Panthers                   12 games                             2015-16

Miami Marlins                         9 games                       4 times, last in 2006

Remembering Panthers and rats as another team in our state plays for the Stanley Cup

When will I be glued to every second of the Stanley Cup Finals? When rats fly, more or less, for that is the enduring memory from the last NHL championship series that required my full attention.

Still got one of those toy rats on display at my work cubicle. In 37 years of covering sports, there never has been a stranger sight than thousands of plastic vermin raining down on the ice from Florida Panthers fans who couldn’t believe that hockey heaven had come to Miami.

[Top 10 reasons Nick Saban probably never watched the Letterman show]

[Making GM the manager is akin to Loria managing the Marlins himself]

[When was last time Gators had new coaches in football and basketball?]

It was 1996 when the Panthers plowed their way into the Stanley Cup Finals in what was the franchise’s third year of existence. The Colorado Avalanche ruined the party by sweeping the series, but even then it took three overtimes to finish it off in Game 4 at Miami Arena.

All the while, great mounds of supplemental air-conditioning equipment wheezed away in the summer heat outside the building. It took an extra shot of winter delivered by massive air ducts to keep the ice inside in the mood for playoff action.

Panthers' Scott Mellanby in 1996 (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post photo)
Panthers’ Scott Mellanby in 1996 (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post photo)

The rats? Oh, that was in silly tribute to Scott Mellanby killing a rat with his hockey stick in the Panthers’ locker room and then going out to score two goals that same day. They called it a “Rat Trick.” They called it good luck, too, and in the earlier playoff rounds against Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, there was plenty of that.

Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning open the Stanley Cup Finals at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways, it always will be a bit strange to think of hockey settling its ultimate score in Florida, where sheets of ice are as artificial as spray tans.

It was even stranger on the night of Oct. 7, 1992, when I found myself perched on a catwalk high above the ice at the old Expo Hall at Tampa’s Florida State Fairgrounds. That’s where they put the media for the first regular-season NHL game ever played in our state – Tampa Bay vs. Chicago.

Yes, it was the Blackhawks again, surlier than ever after being made to wait through an hour-long pregame ceremony featuring the Lightning’s Japanese ownership group. In my column from that night, Phil Esposito, the Lightning GM for that expansion season, explained how he got Japanese businessmen interested in hockey. “They thought I said saki,” he said.

Anyway, Tampa Bay won 7-3 and everybody was happy except for the guy sitting on the stool next to me. He fumed the entire game, shouting horrible things at the Blackhawks, at the officials, at the world. I asked the Lightning’s media representative who this guy was and why he didn’t understand how to act more professionally in what passed for a press box in that old barn.

Mike Keenan reacts behind bench during his time as Florida Panthers coach in 2003 (Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post photo)
Mike Keenan reacts behind bench during his time as Florida Panthers coach in 2003 (Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post photo)

I was advised to stay quiet, stay calm and do everything possible to avoid further antagonizing the man, who turned out to be Mike Keenan, who was working in the Blackhawks’ front office that year.

Hockey fans already know about Iron Mike, but to the unitiated, and that’s what I was at the time, here is a description of Keenan by the great Jeremy Roenick.

“Playing for coach Mike Keenan in Chicago was like camping on the side of an active volcano,” Roenick wrote in an article for Deadspin. “You had to accept the reality that he erupted regularly and that there was always a danger of being caught in his lava flow.”

Keenan was a beast all right, but even he couldn’t light a fire under the Panthers. While serving as Florida’s coach from 2002-04, he never finished higher than fourth place and failed to make the playoffs.