Panthers look to earn place with Miami powerhouses

It’s an interesting time to be a sports fan in Miami.

For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, all of the Miami sporting franchises are clicking at the same time. The Hurricanes baseball team is quietly working on its postseason resume. The football team, even after a lackluster Spring Game, is looking to build momentum in the second year of the Golden era.

Locally, the Miami Heat is on its way to locking up at least the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and will look to make another run to the NBA Finals. The Marlins are gathering plenty of attention (not always the good kind), and the young season may provide plenty of positives for the team. And the Dolphins … well, you can’t win them all, I suppose.

But there’s another team just north of the Miami-Dade County line that is slowly gathering attention in the 305 for the first time since the turn of the century. While just two years ago this team could have gotten up and left its home at the Bank Atlantic Center and nobody in the Miami area would have noticed, the Florida Panthers are steadily gaining traction once more. Their successful 2011-2012 season has them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1999.

Personally, I can’t admit to being a lifelong Panthers fan. In fact, I probably only started watching the team semi-regularly over the past two years. The only attention the team has garnered over the past 15 years was always about how historically bad their inability to make the postseason stood in the record books, and in a city like Miami, where your popularity is based on how you stand in the win-loss columns, a formula like that proved to be catastrophic.

Still, I also can’t deny that this entire season has been an enjoyable one to watch, even from the perspective of an up-and-down team that didn’t seem to get many chances to succeed. Two years after general manager Dale Tallon took over the team, which was just before his former Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and 637 games after captain Stephen Weiss was drafted by the Panthers, they can both finally say they were able to turn this team around.

Heading into their first-round matchup against the New Jersey Devils, this up-and-coming squad wasn’t given much of a chance to make the next round. The Panthers hadn’t been in the playoffs in years; the Devils were a more experienced squad. Losing the first game at home didn’t help either. Even after winning Game 2, a 3-0 deficit on Tuesday made it seem as if there was no realistic shot. But just as unrealistic as their path to the postseason looked, the Panthers came back to score four unanswered goals and come away with the 4-3 win.

Do I expect hockey fever to take over South Florida the way that the Heat did during the 2010 offseason? Absolutely not. Are they as close to the city as the rebranded Miami Marlins? Nope. Will it take some time before a full-throttled fan base ravages for seats they way they do for the other two teams? Of course.

But Miami is and always will be a town that follows the winners. Winning is something that the Panthers didn’t do down here for a long time. Caring about hockey in Miami once seemed like a joke. But in the same way they were long forgotten, they might soon be worth remembering.