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CINDERELLA LIVES : Panthers’ Glass Slipper Is More Like a Work Boot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The original six teams have all been sent home.

The dynasties of recent decades are fading memories.

Neither the Florida Panthers nor the Colorado Avalanche, who will compete for the Stanley Cup beginning today at McNichols Arena, existed three years ago, at least in present form. The roads that took the expansion Panthers to the Eastern Conference title and the Avalanche from Quebec to Denver and to supremacy in the West were vastly different, yet each team’s success is improbable for many reasons.

“We’re not supposed to be here, Detroit is supposed to be here,” Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy said, referring to the Red Wings’ record 62-victory season, which Colorado ended in the conference finals. “No matter what team wins the Cup, it’s going to be a surprise.”

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A triumph by the Panthers, however, would be stunning.

The Avalanche finished second in the West and second overall in the NHL with 104 points. The Panthers had the top record in the East early in the season but slumped near the end and were seeded fourth in the West.

“I think this is one of the great surprises ever,” said Barry Melrose, who coached the underdog Kings to the 1993 final against Montreal and is now an ESPN commentator. “They’re a third-year team, they have no glamour players and they just work so hard. They’re a great, great story.”

Said Panther President Bill Torrey: “It’s like Christmas--Christmas in June.”

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In this meeting of first-time finalists, the Avalanche has been cast as the slick-skating, high-flying favorite, and the Panthers are designated the ugly ducklings who have blossomed into swans.

“Only the third season in the NHL, you have to feel they’re a Cinderella team,” Colorado General Manager Pierre Lacroix said. “But we won’t take these guys like a bunch of Cinderellas. We will take them seriously.”

That Cinderella wears work boots instead of glass slippers and reached the finals through toil instead of the wave of a magic wand doesn’t detract from the Panthers’ accomplishment.

Simplified, the Panthers’ story is how a bunch of castoffs plucked from the 1993 expansion draft and a few poised kids united to play a selfless defensive game and upset such star-studded, traditional NHL powers as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins.

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There have been similar stories over the years, the most recent last year when the New Jersey Devils used their neutral-zone trap to win the Eastern title and upset the Red Wings in the finals. Their success was based on the formula the Panthers use--relentless defense, four lines that provide balance and superb goaltending.

“They’re a club that plays tight defense and they can score some goals when they need to,” said Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux, the most valuable player in the 1995 playoffs with the Devils. “That’s the key and that’s what they did against Pittsburgh, Philly and Boston. They were able to make them pay every time someone made a bad play or a turnover.”

The Kings were the sensation of the 1993 playoffs after compiling the sixth-best record in the West, and the Panthers’ Cup march parallels theirs. The Kings were the lower seed in every series and the Panthers were the lower seed in all but their first-round series against Boston. Each team won its semifinals by winning a seventh game on the road. But even Melrose believes the Panthers have surpassed the Kings’ exploits.

“Our situation was a bit different because we had [Wayne] Gretzky, a high-profile player, and they don’t have anyone like that,” he said. “Both teams played very hard and have good goaltending. Both teams were given no chance to win but kept winning. . . . What’s most similar is the work ethic, guys like Warren Rychel, who had six goals, and Dave Lowry for them [who has 10 goals].”

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Panther captain Brian Skrudland played for another upstart finalist, the 1986 Montreal Canadiens. They had the NHL’s seventh-best record but were boosted by the emergence of a rookie named Patrick Roy.

“There’s a lot of similarities, starting with the goaltending,” Skrudland said, referring to Florida teammate John Vanbiesbrouck. “The goalies are really the people who got us to this plateau. And Jean Perron was a rookie coach, and Doug [MacLean] is a rookie coach. Our defense played so splendid, which is another similarity.

“But you’re talking about a team that had Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Ryan Walter, Mats Naslund, names people could recognize. There’s not a lot of names on our roster that are household names, and that’s the best part about it.”

The 1991 Minnesota North Stars staged the second-biggest upset in playoff history by eliminating the Chicago Blackhawks, who had finished 38 points ahead of them. They then upset the St. Louis Blues, who had been 37 points ahead of them, and the defending Cup champion Edmonton Oilers before losing to Pittsburgh in the finals.

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The 1982 Vancouver Canucks were another surprise. They were 30-33-17 during the season but lost only two games en route to the finals, but they returned to earth when they were swept by the defending champion New York Islanders.

“Vancouver got there by playing a very aggressive style,” said former Islander goalie Bill Smith, now Florida’s goalie coach. “Against Chicago [in the semifinals] it was a blood bath. They tried it against us and couldn’t get us into fighting and they didn’t have the ability to play with us.”

The 1979 New York Rangers had the fifth-best record in what was then the Wales Conference when they upset the Kings, Flyers and heavily favored Islanders to reach the Cup final.

“The Panthers are very comparable to that team,” said John Davidson, the Ranger goalie that season and now a TV analyst. “The Rangers struggled a bit that year and Florida struggled in the last month. We had Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais and Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson who had a lot of experience, and the Panthers have Skrudland and [Scott] Mellanby. I don’t think we had the depth Florida has, and they’ve been schooled so well defensively for three years.”

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The 1971 Canadiens were another Cup surprise, having missed the playoffs the previous year and having finished 21 points behind the Bruins. They rode goalie Ken Dryden to success, as the Panthers have ridden Vanbiesbrouck and the Avalanche has relied on Roy.

“John Vanbiesbrouck has been awesome,” Skrudland said. “He’s made so many stops when you almost counted them goals. We’re all here on his shoulders. I told him we’re all getting heavier, so he’d better buckle up.”

The Avalanche wouldn’t mind being the team that turns the Cinderella Panthers back into chimney sweeps and turns their coach and horses back into a pumpkin and mice (or rats).

“I have a lot of respect for everyone on that team and the people who built that team, like Bill Torrey,” Roy said. “They did a super job. . . . It’s important for us to respect them enough to come out strong. If we work harder than them, with the talent we got, we should be fine.”

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