SUNRISE, FL "No rats on the ice."
That announcement, made on the public address system at the raucous BankAtlantic Center, was sweet music to the ears of playoff-starved Florida Panthers fans on Saturday. It meant success.
The rats litter the ice after Panthers goals. Saturday's "No rats on the ice" announcement, intended to prevent a delay-of-game penalty, last came with just 33.9 seconds left in Game 5 between the Panthers and New Jersey Devils.
It followed the Panthers taking the 3-0 lead that would serve as the game's final score.
And with that shutout victory, amazingly, the Panthers now hold a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven opening-round series. Florida, which hadn't made a playoff appearance in a NHL-record 12 seasons, is one victory from advancing to the second round.
Game 6 is Tuesday in New Jersey.
"It's definitely huge," right winger Kris Versteeg said of the Panthers' 3-2 series lead and the chance to end the series in two days.
If that effort fails, Florida hosts Game 7 on Thursday.
"Electric atmosphere," coach Kevin Dineen said of the sellout Game 5 crowd, "but I sure would rather wait a few days before we have to come home to play another game."
As it turns out, the "no rats on the ice" announcement, which actually came twice in Game 5, in the first and third periods, was a bit unnerving to Dineen.
"I'm a little concerned about the rats in the middle of the game," he said, tongue firmly in cheek. "I know there's a lot of Devils fans throwing them out there trying to get us a delay-of-game penalty."
The rats are a tradition dating to Opening Night of the 1995-96 season. Scott Mellanby slap-shotted a rat against a lockerroom wall in the dilapidated Miami Arena before the game. The rat died. But a tradition was born. The Panthers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals that year and the rat has remained a symbol.
Among human symbols, Versteeg was one of many heroes for the Panthers on this night. He had a goal and an assist. But Florida goalie Jose Theodore, who got his second postseason shutout, may have been more important. He stonewalled the Devils' 30 shots. This came after being yanked in the Panthers' 4-3 come-from-behind Game 3 victory at New Jersey.
In Saturday's Game 5, Theodore's first-period play he stopped 11 shots was the inspiration for the Panthers.
"That's Theo," Dineen said. "That's what I expected of him."
Of course, Versteeg scoring that first-period power play goal can't be discounted, either.
"I thought I fed off them because they were playing really hard, skating, checking hard, and when I had to make a save I'm sure that helped them to push," Theodore said, "so it was really a team effort."
In the end, it might be a chicken-and-egg thing about whether Theodore fired up his team, or the team fired up Theodore. And it really doesn't matter. Theodore answered the call.
"He was a very underrated signing by our team that might be one of the better signings in the league the way he's played all season," defenseman Brian Campbell said.
The power playshorthanded goal wasn't a huge story in Game 5, but Florida did score shorthanded on the game's final goal because the Devils pulled goalie Martin Brodeur for an extra skater.
The Panthers are now 7 for 22 on power-play goals, a remarkable total against a New Jersey team that was historically good at penalty killing during the regular season.
The Devils' 89.6 percent penalty-killing success rate is the best in the modern era, but it apparently means nothing in this series. Florida was 3 for 3 on shorthanded goals in Game 3, and 1 for 6 in Game 5.
But the Panthers scored on five-on-five goals, too, on Saturday. In the second period Scottie Upshall scored on a fabulous effort from Versteeg, who dug the puck off the boards and flipped a nifty pass to Upshall who went top shelf for the commanding 2-0 lead at the 13:17 mark.
Even with a 2-0 lead in the third period there was a bit of nervousness among the soldout crowd of 19,513 at the BankAtlantic Center. But when Florida's Tomas Kopecky scored an empty-net goal to give the Panthers their 3-2 series lead, tens of rats littered the ice, penalty be damned.
It's unusual for the Panthers to even have a share of the spotlight at this time of year. Prior to this year Florida hadn't made the playoffs since 2000.
For the last dozen years, April in South Florida meant the Miami Heat preparing for the NBA playoffs, the Marlins opening the baseball season, the Dolphins preparing for the NFL Draft, and the University of Miami having its spring football game.
But this year is different. The rats are back. And that's good news for all Panthers fans.