Panthers showing promise

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Driving to the glitzy BankAtlantic Center here on the fringe of the Everglades, Peter DeBoer's mug can be seen plastered on various billboards along the way.

The billboards are part of an ad campaign promoting the "Panthers Promise," an innovative plan in which fans purchasing the four-game ticket pack will get priority purchasing rights for the post-season.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Panthers will make the playoffs. If they, in fact, do not, fans who have invested in the Panthers Promise Plan will get free tickets to four games in 2009-10.

Asked if seeing himself on all these larger-than-life signs makes him the so-called "face" of the franchise, DeBoer chuckled.

"For (the fans' sake), I hope not," he laughed.

Kidding aside, DeBoer is well aware of the attendance woes the Panthers franchise has endured over the years. Part of that might be because of the fact that the arena is so far west, you have a better chance of seeing alligators sunbathing than female spring breakers.

But a much more relevant reason that fans have stayed away over the years: The team has not been competitive for a long time.

This season is different. Under DeBoer's guidance, the Panthers sit just one point out of a playoff berth after last night's 3-1 win over the Maple Leafs.

Still, doesn't the possibility of having the organization hand out gratis tickets next season put pressure on the players to make sure they reach the post-season this year, thereby ensuring that the freebie caveat will not come into play?

"Pressure? That's not pressure," said DeBoer, the long-time successful bench boss of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers. "You want to know what pressure is? Pressure is them not making the playoffs here in seven or eight years."

The Panthers previous taste of post-season hockey: The spring of 2000.

"You have to understand. This is new to me, too. I mean, the entire time I was in Kitchener, I never missed the playoffs," DeBoer said.

"The (Panthers Promise Plan) is our way of saying we, as players, coaches, an organization as a whole, are doing everything in our power to make the playoffs. We are trying to establish an identity here that, while many people don't think we really have enough talent to win, we can win with hard work and by playing team hockey."

Certainly the best way to put butts in the seats is by winning. But even the magic of DeBoer, certainly a coach-of-the-year candidate, might not be enough to overcome the perceived lack of skill the team is facing, especially if defenceman Jay Bouwmeester leaves as a free agent during the summer. By not dealing him at the trade deadline, general manger Jacques Martin is faced with the prospect of losing his stud defenceman for nothing in the event he can not re-sign him.

In the meantime, while DeBoer attempts to establish a winning attitude for a franchise in dire need of one, there already are other promotions aside from the Panthers Promise Plan that involve ticket giveaways.

Leading up to the game last night, fans had the opportunity of picking up ducats at no cost simply by visiting the van outside the arena's front doors belonging to AM-790, the local radio station that carries the Panthers games.

On his daily afternoon drive program, Dan Le Batard, a well-known local broadcaster and columnist, was predicting the station could give away as many as 500-1,000 free tickets for the Leafs game.

Even with that, there would be no sellout on this night. Not like 48 hours earlier in Tampa when thousands of Leafs fans made Toronto players feel as if they were the home team.

Not even the presence of all the spring breakers in the area from the Great White North could fill the joint last night.

Maybe the best way of promoting the fun one can have at a Panthers tilt was exhibited -- literally -- by a young lady who lifted up her top at a recent game, displaying her considerable, ah, assets.

Whatever it takes.

That's a promise.

---

REPLAY

LAST NIGHT AT SUNRISE, FLA.

DR. PEPPER

The Florida Panthers fired 19 shots at Leafs goalie Martin Gerber in the second period. That was the second-highest shot total the Panthers had accrued in a period during the 2008-09 campaign. They registered 20 in a game against Ottawa earlier this season.

COMEBACK KABBY?

Defenceman Tomas Kaberle will have an X-ray taken in Montreal today on his injured right hand. Should he get the green light, Kaberle hopes to be in the lineup against the Habs tomorrow night at the Bell Centre.

Kaberle was the last player on the ice at the morning skate, testing the hand by firing passes and taking shots.

"I still have a bit of discomfort but that's to be expected," Kaberle said. "I think that will be the case the rest of the season. That's OK. I just want to get back in the lineup. I very much want to play."

SWEPT AWAY

With the win last night, the Panthers got their first sweep of the Maple Leafs since the 1995-96 season, when they only faced each other twice.


Videos

Photos