It was the time of Bill Clinton, and Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Seinfeld was still going strong on TV. Independence Day was dominating at the box office, and we were dancing to Macarena on the radio. Dan Marino was still gunslinging for the Dolphins.
It was 1996 when the Florida Panthers last won an NHL playoff series.
They did again Friday night -- Friday the 13th turned lucky. The word finally has seldom been more aptly applied. Twenty-six years of frustration did not just disappear, but at least were put in the past tense at last. After six previous first-round failures since reaching the ‘96 Stanley Cup Finals, the Panthers are moving on in the playoffs instead of watching them on TV.
This ends the longest drought of playoff series wins in NHL history.
So it figures it stretched into overtime Friday to do it.
The Comeback Cats rallied from a goal down, twice, in a 4-3 OT victory over the Washington Capitals in D.C., a Game 6 victory that eliminated Caps and left Florida in a very unaccustomed place:
Waiting for its second round opponent.
The Panthers, moving ahead, will next face the winner of Saturday night’s Game 7 between the rival Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Florida’s winning goal in extra time: Carter Verhaeghe. Or did that go without saying?
He’d scored four goals in thee previous two games including two game winners.
He was questionable to play Friday with an injury and was quiet -- until he scored the biggest franchise goal in 26 years.
“A long time coming,” said Jonathan Huberdeau -- the triumvirate of long-timers along with Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad finally moving on. ”Me, Barky, Ekky, it was important for us. Big relief. Now, we might as well go all the way.”
Said Barkov: “Nine years here I haven’t been to second round. It feels great. There’s been as lot of talk about this, not getting to second round, but it’s there. Now it’s not there anymore. At the same time, there’s a lot of work [ahead].”
The Comeback Cats rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits and two ties to win.
“What we saw all year, the resiliency of the team. They call them the Comeback Cats, but I’m not sure that’s what I see,” said coach Andrew Brunette. “I see guys who get hit, and they don’t go down. They fight back. We took the punch, stood up and started punching back. That’s the epitome of what the season is.”
After a tense scoreless first period the Capitals struck first 3:44 into the second on a Nic Dowd shot that caromed off the upper-right goalpost and down -- put back in by Dowd before Sergei Bobrovsky could find the puck.
The Cats weren’t down long.
Florida went level at 1-1 6:13 into the second period on a Ryan Lomberg finish off a sequence initiated by Aaron Ekblad. Lomberg had seen very limited ice time before this in the series -- but was there for the crucial, needed spark.
“Trying to make it tough for them to leave me out,” the new daddy Lomberg said with a smile.
“First period they had a little bit better of the play and the second we got to our game,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said on TBS midgame.
The third was not as kind for Florida.
Just 1:37 in, a Nicklas Backstrom slapshot beat Bobrovsky for the 2-1 margin.
But -- never discount the Comeback Cats -- Florida tied it 2-2 mid-third when the veteran Giroux, such a smart add for the Cats, slid the puck between the legs of goalie Ilya Samsonov on service from Aaron Ekblad.
Then came Barkov. The Panthers’ best player, captain Aleksander Barkov, made it 3-2 on an in-close deposit of a gorgeous cross pass from Claude Giroux with 5:43 to play in regulation.
That was before the Capitals tied it 3-3 with 1:01 left in regulation -- 61 seconds -- when nemesis T.J. Oshie solved heavy traffic at the Cats’ net.
The frantic OT finish for a Game 6 road win avoided what would have been the 15th Game 7 in the combined history of the Panthers, Marlins and Heat, and the 11th at home -- the first since the Heat in May 2016.
The hockey team has had only two of those Game 7s: a 1996 win in Pittsburgh in the Eastern finals, and a 2012 home loss to New Jersey in the first round.
It seemed headed to a third Game 7 in club history much of Friday night but the Panthers did what they do.
Down 2-1 in this series, in the past three games, all wins, the Cats have done this:
Scored the tying goal with two minutes left and then won in overtime.
Overcome a 3-0 deficit and won 5-3.
And Friday, rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 down and a couple of ties to win on the road.
The Florida Panthers were the best and highest-scoring team in hockey this NHL season, but with a history that makes them still seem like underdogs.
Well, the proving goes on.
But that’s the thing.
For the first time since 1996, it does not end with the regular season or in the playoffs’ first round.
It goes on.