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11 Years is Enough for Florida Panthers: Hottest Team in Town Bringing Joy to Starved Fans ... Cats to Challenge Washington Capitals on Monday

VanmurphratSAN JOSE, Calif. – Ed Jovanovski thought his days of dodging rubber rats cascading from the stands were long over.

“It was funny. I wasn't even thinking about them and one whistled right by my head,'' the Florida Panthers' 35-year-old defenseman said after a win last month.

“It's good to see that old tradition back, good to see fans have fun again. It's nice to give them something to cheer about.''

Jovanovski, traded to Vancouver in 1999 and signed as a free agent in July, was here when hockey was the coolest game in South Florida – literally and figuratively. As a rookie in 1996, Jovanovski was a big part of the Panthers run to the Stanley Cup Finals, a time when a young hockey team captured the region's attention and became known nationally for fans tossing those rubber rats by the thousands onto the ice after each goal.

The NHL outlawed the practice the following season, but a few fans still bring the rubber critters to games and throw them onto the ice if the Panthers win. In recent years, one or two might make be thrown. These days, dozens fall from all reaches of BankAtlantic Center.

VersteegAlthough the Panthers remained popular after that initial success – Florida made it to the Finals in just its third year of existence – the team definitely lost its place in the area's consciousness over the past decade. Failing to make the playoffs for 11 years will do that. Since last appearing in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2000, the Panthers have given their fans only scant opportunity to really be excited.

This is one of those times.

The Panthers are off to their best start since the last time they made the playoffs. Florida goes into into Monday's home game against the Washington Capitals holding a five point lead on the second-place Capitals after Saturday's 5-3 win in San Jose.

That buzz you are hearing is coming from hockey fans in South Florida who have been starved for success.

“I run into people at Publix now and everyone is stopping me wanting to talk about the team,'' said Randy Moller, the team's radio voice who has been around the team since retiring as a player in 1995.

Rats11“They're an exciting team to watch. The fans believe the Panthers have turned the corner. My neighbors used to dodge the subject of the Panthers or try to lift my spirits. Now? It's 'how 'bout those Panthers!' I'm having a blast calling these games and talking about this team.''

Since 2005, the Panthers have started slow, digging a hole in the standings they couldn't get out of. Florida has been good from the jump this year and are in the strange position of being a chased team.

The Panthers, atop their division for a third consecutive week, haven't been in first this late in a season since 2000.

Dale Tallon took over as the team's general manager in the summer of 2010, just a few weeks before his former team won the Stanley Cup. Tallon brought over some of his old pals from Chicago this offseason, trading for Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg. Combined, the trio has 17 goals and 43 assists.

Gone are many young core players the Panthers had planned to build around. Tallon did keep players such as Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison -- who are both are having career seasons -- and surrounded them with new faces.

“This takes a long time. We have to make sure we're moving ahead every day,'' Tallon said. “We're looking at things a game at a time, a fan at a time, a player at a time. We're sticking to our guns. We're going to be patient.''

When the Panthers opened this season, of the 20 players dressed, 14 weren't with the team for the 2010-11 opener. Tallon cut and slashed the roster through trades and then brought in players he wanted. So far, his plan is working out.

“I've been here eight years and I've never seen the excitement level like it is right now,'' team president Michael Yormark said. “We're making a lot of progress, you can't just flip a switch, but we're enjoying that. Things are really picking up. Fans are thirsty for a winner. This market is ready to explode but we can't get too high, too low. We just need to get better on and off the ice and good things are going to happen for us.''

And some of their fans even go out of their way to follow the team.

Murphy Burch, a Cooper City based pilot for AmericanAirlines, not only has season tickets, but also goes to many road games. When the Panthers win away from Sunrise, Burch lets his painted rubber rats fly. After Saturday's win in San Jose, goalie Scott Clemmensen scooped one of them up and brought it into the locker room.

“I haven't seen this kind of excitement between the fans and players since the run in 1996,'' said Bill Murphy, the in-game host at the arena. “This is one of the most exciting seasons I've seen in a long time. Word is spreading. We have people coming to games who either have never been or haven't been in a while. Demand is higher than it has been in a long, long time.''

If the Panthers beat the Capitals on Monday night, players know not to rip off their helmets too soon.

“Those rats are awesome. I had forgotten all about them until one hit the ice on Long Island in the opening game,'' first-year coach Kevin Dineen said. “We're getting some believers and people are enjoying following us this year. There's nothing wrong with that.''

Vokun12MONDAY: CAPITALS AT PANTHERS

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM-560

The series: Washington leads 49-41-9

The game: Tomas Vokoun is expected to play in his first game at BankAtlantic Center since leaving the Panthers as a free agent this past summer. Vokoun Vokounweissspent four seasons with the Panthers and beat the Capitals 1-0 in Florida's season finale last year. Washington beat Florida 3-0 on Oct. 18 and have won 11 of the past 13 meetings between the two. Jose Theodore, who spent two seasons with the Captials from 2008-10, is expected to start for Florida.

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