FanPost

A not-so-brief eulogy for the 2015-16 Florida Panthers

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers 2015-2016 season is over. John Tavares killed it twice last night, first when he scored the game tying goal with less than a minute to go, and then again when he scored the game winner 10:41 into the second overtime period to give the Islanders a 2-1 victory in Game 6, and a 4-2 win in the series.

Before we move on to discussing the playoff series against the Islanders, I just want to take a second to talk about this season, the 2015-2016 NHL season. This was, quite literally, the best season in Florida Panthers history. Look at the Florida Panthers' page on hockey-reference.com. It's ugly.

From 1993-2016, the Florida Panthers have a grand total of two winning seasons. Put another way, they have won more than 41 games only twice in their entire 22 year existence.

Being a Florida Panthers fan means accepting losing for the time being, with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. It has meant this for almost 20 years. The last time the Florida Panthers had a winning season, the year was 1999. They won 43 games. Pavel Bure scored 58 goals in 74 games, and led the team to a first round loss against the New Jersey Devils.

That was the best regular season in Panthers history up until 2015. Even the 2011-2012 playoff team only won 38 games, and finished the year with 94 points, while the 1999-2000 Panthers won 43 games, and finished with 98 points.

The 2015-2016 Panthers, however, broke the ridiculous circle of mediocrity. This team went 47-26-6, finishing the year with a franchise record 103 points. They set a franchise record when they went on 12 game winning streak, and created the #SpaceyInSpace mania that resulted in Kevin Spacey showing up to one of the team's home games while wearing a sweatshirt of his disembodied head floating in space.

We got see Jaromir Jagr put up 66 points in 79 games at the age of 44. Equally impressive, 20-year-old Aleksander Barkov totaled 59 points in 66 games. Freak of nature Aaron Ekblad had 36 points in 78 games. Reminder; he's 19-years-old.

There were so many positives about this season that can't be forgotten simply because the Cats were eliminated in the first round. It's important that we don't forget that, even if the end result wasn't what we wanted. Going out in the first round hurts, especially given the way the series ended, but this season still has to be considered a success.

Looking at that odd, rapid-fire, and exciting playoff series, we see that the Panthers simply ran out of luck. During the regular season, they finished with the league's 2nd highest PDO. There were plenty of favorable bounces going the team's way, and luck definitely played a role when it comes to regular season success.

In the playoffs, however, Lady Luck disappeared. In the last three games of the the series, the Panthers could not have done anything more to manufacture a goal, besides maybe tackle the goalie and put the puck into the open the net. Night in and night out, it seemed like Thomas Greiss was an impenetrable wall that someone had attached a massive magnet too. At the end of the day, it's borderline impossible to beat your opponent in a seven game series when their goalie stops 94.4 percent of the shots you throw at him.

Greiss wasn't the only factor in the series, however. John Tavares also played a pivotal role, not just in Game 6, but in almost every game of the series. The Islanders captain is one of the best players in the league, and he proved it, putting up five goals and four assists in just six games. The Panthers just didn't have an answer for him, and the Islanders knew it; Tavares played over 30 minutes in both Game 5 and Game 6.

It's not like the Panthers played terribly, though. In fact, for the vast majority of the series, the Panthers took the Islanders to the woodshed. When John Tavares wasn't on the ice, the Islanders were underwater, hanging on for dear life, trying to keep themselves from giving up a goal by just chipping the puck out and hanging on for dear life until Tavares got back on the ice.

The final shot attempt totals in all situations were 442-392 in favor of the Panthers. The final scoring chance totals in all situations were 229-198 in favor of the Panthers. The final high danger scoring chance totals in all situations were 84-75, in favor of the Panthers.

This is kind of what makes playoff hockey so great, though. The Panthers out-play the Islanders in almost every game of the series, but a superstar and a hot goalie carry the weaker team to victory.

Here's where things turn sour.

Despite the brilliance of Tavares and the incredible performance of Greiss, we have headlines like this:

This is because the Islanders committed two incredibly blatant tripping penalties while the Panthers had the puck in the offensive zone, with an empty net. Both went uncalled, and about 10 seconds later John Tavares tied the game. So, despite a series stealing performance by a goaltender who had only faced 28 career playoff shots before matching up against the Panthers, one of the biggest storylines surrounding Game 6 focuses on the referees.

The missed calls in Game 6, were an absolute joke, too. Obviously there's more focus on what the Islanders got away with, but neither team is innocent; there was plenty of garbage that went uncalled simply because "it's playoff hockey". A quick sampling (again, all of this is focused on the Islanders, but the Panthers aren't exactly saints here. Over the course of the series, the Cats got away with their fair share of penalties).

(R rated language in this Tweet...)

This is just from the third period, and only from Game 6.

Let's take a look at some earlier games in the series too!

In Game 1, Brian Campbell slashes Matt Martin. Campbell's stick breaks, Martin gets a penalty.

View post on imgur.com

In Game 2, Ryan Pulock holds Jonathan Huberdeau's stick. Like, with his hand, and everything.

View post on imgur.com

In Game 5, Jaromir Jagr shoulders an unsuspecting Cal Clutterbuck in the face.

In Game 5, Nick Leddy trips Vincent Trocheck.

The missed calls go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and for both teams. There was a play during Game 5, in overtime, where Vincent Trocheck boarded Frans Nielsen, then proceeded to crosscheck him in the back of the head several times. There was no call, despite three to four obvious infractions on Trocheck's part.

I was at Game 5. I made the three-hour drive down from Orlando in the middle of rush hour to make it to that game on time. I showed up at my house, hastily munched on some spaghetti, and then booked it to my recently purchased nose-bleed seats in section 305 of the BB&T Center.

I watched the referees completely ignore the rule book in what was one of the worst displays of officiating I've ever seen. The amount of non-calls made me want to vomit. It felt like every two minutes I was muttering "Wow, that should have been a penalty" under my breath. At 5v5, the game was so stifled, and so shut down, that I felt like I was watching a pair of UFC fighters grapple every time two players fought for the puck.

There is no special edition of the rulebook for the NHL playoffs. The concept of "letting the players decide the game, and not the refs" is incredibly flawed, mainly because the decision to not make a call is still a decision on behalf of the referee. Failure to make the proper call means that a referee has just allowed a player to cheat. Players will cheat naturally, as they should; any way you can gain an advantage, you should be trying to gain that advantage, especially in the playoffs.

The referees in the Panthers v. Islanders series let illegal actions (as defined by the NHL rulebook!!!) define the series. Too many missed calls, both ways, soiled what otherwise could have been an excellent series.

Would the outcome have been any different if the rulebook had been enforced strictly, instead of not at all? I honestly doubt it, the way that Thomas Greiss and John Tavares were playing. That's not the point. The point is that, instead of feeling like the Panthers lost to another hockey team, I feel like the Panthers lost to the refs. As a hockey fan, I don't care that much about losing; I care about the way I felt watching the games.

When I sit down with my family to watch Game 6 in my living room, and we spend three hours watching every play in the game, I don't want a blown call by a referee to dominate the topic of discussion for the next hour. I don't want to not be able to watch the game because I feel sick in my stomach. I want to be riveted to the T.V, waiting for something exciting to happen. Waiting for a player with skill and speed and talent to make an impact on the game without controversy, or without help from officials. It's ridiculous that the referees had such an impact on the series, and the NHL should honestly be embarrassed that their officials played such a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of a playoff series.

This will be my main takeaway from the 2015-2016 season, and that's sad. This year's Florida Panthers team was the best team in franchise history. They won their division. They made the playoffs for the 2nd time in 15 seasons. They won a franchise record 12 games in a row. Players such as Barkov, Ekblad, Huberdeau, Trocheck, Smith, Kulikov, Gudbranson, and others showed that they're young, talented, and committed.

It's unfair to everyone that this season ended the way it did. An incredibly committed fanbase that's only been in two playoff series over the past 15 years didn't deserve that, and the players sure as hell didn't deserve it.

The 2015-2016 Florida Panthers season is over. John Tavares, Thomas Greiss, and the New York Islanders killed it. It was one hell of ride, but it's time to look ahead to the 2016-2017 season.

Hopefully the ending to next year will be a little bit happier.

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