The Florida Panthers hit town tonight as the talk of the NHL: They have a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, they have moved into first place in the Atlantic Division and the long-barren stands of BB&T Center are now pretty much filled -- with fans rooting for the Panthers and not the opponent.
The Panthers have a roster with several high draft picks playing huge roles but the talk of the team is 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who has team-high totals of 13 goals and 28 points in 36 games. Jagr has 735 career goals and 1,830 points in his career, fourth on the all-time list in both categories. He's just six goals behind Brett Hull (741) and 20 points behind Gordie Howe (1,850).
"No question about it that the streak has helped us a lot," Jagr said today. "You needed to sell something. It doesn't always work to promise the fans we're going to make the playoffs because we've got a good young team. They don't buy it much. Even in the middle of the season, the streak has helped us a lot. The team can say, 'See, we didn't lie. There's something special there. They can beat even the top teams in the league.'
"Of course, the football season is over now, it was Christmas so people have more time to go to the games but we really appreciate it. The support of our fans has been great."
Jagr has 44 goals and 102 points in 85 career games against the Sabres. He plays on a line with center Alexander Barkov (2nd overall, 2013) and Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd overall, 2011). The lineup also includes defenseman Aaron Ekblad (1st overall, 2014), who was taken one spot before the Sabres grabbed Sam Reinhart.
"I'm just trying to enjoy it," Jagr said. "They're helping me the way they skate and work and I'm trying to help them with my experience. I love the game. I don't want to be embarrassed out there and that's why I'm trying to be work hard. I don't want to be the guy to play bad and make my linemates look bad. Some games that happens and I apologize. I want to make sure I'm better the next game."
The Panthers were in limbo until Broward County passed an $86 million aid package last month to ensure the franchise would stay in South Florida for the next 13 years. They seem set in the Sunshine State, and look good for several years of winning hockey too.
"They're excited. they're proud," former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell said of the team's embattled fan base. "You've got to give fans a reason to be proud and want to cheer and then they'll support you."
"The last six weeks have been real good for our franchise with the deal they got with Broward County," said coach Gerard Gallant. "The way the winning streak has gone, the way the team has played, being in first place right now in our division, a lot of good things have happened and there's a good buzz down there. We're real excited at the things have gone on."
Tonight's game is the opener of a six-game trip for the Panthers, who are 6-0-2 in their last eight games in Buffalo and haven't lost in regulation here since March 25, 2011. Veteran Roberto Luongo is in goal and again brings his stellar career numbers against Buffalo into the crease -- 15-7 with a 1.87 goals against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts. Luongo has blanked the Sabres in his last three visits to First Niagara Center.