The Florida Panthers are becoming one of the best stories of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, making the postseason for the first time since 2000 and leading the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
And if the Panthers are winning, you can be sure the rats are flying.
The plastic rats that became part of Panthers lore in their 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Final returned this season, as they began selling white, black and grey rats at their team store in December for $5 per rodent, or free with a $50 purchase.
The NHL rule in place since the original Rat Trick — that a home team could be given a penalty for anything tossed on the ice after goals or during play — is still valid today, so Panthers fans would flood the ice after victories at home, rather than tossing them during the game.
In Game 5 against the Devils, however, the rats hit the ice during the game and before the end of the third period — after a game-clinching empty net goal by Tomas Kopecky, on an ensuing faceoff and then as the Devils skated around their own zone in the waning moments of the Florida win.
Panthers President Michael Yormark said after the game: "Great win but fans, we cannot throw rats during the game. This has become a serious issue."
So serious, in fact, that the team has decided to stop selling the rats at their team store … and blaming Devils fans for it.
From the Sun-Sentinel, fans were asked to stop tossing rats during the game:
The Devils players have expressed their annoyance with the flying furry rodents, especially when they hit the ice during play.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said the building was, "electric," but he too is worried about the possibility of drawing a costly penalty.
"I'm a little concerned about the rats in the middle of the game," said Dineen. "I know there's a lot of Devil fans throwing them out there trying to get us a delay of game penalty there. I hope that's something we can hold until the end of the game.
On Monday, Yormark formally announced the end of the rat sales, and cited Devils fans indirectly as the cause:
"Panthers will not sell rats at Pantherland. This is a result of visiting fans throwing rats on the ice during the game. Panthers will not tolerate any fan throwing items on the ice during our game. If seen, they will be ejected from the arena immediately."
Devils coach Pete DeBoer offered a "no comment" on the announcement, per the Star-Ledger.
The Panthers, for their part, have tried to educate fans during the season on when to throw the rats without recourse, handing out these WARNING signs during home games:
Now, one assumes the NHL stepped in here to force the Panthers to do something about the rats issue. The Devils were literally stick-handling around plastic rodents at the end of the game, during play.
But are we alone in thinking that despite the ban on rat sales, this accusation of visiting fan sabotage from Kevin Dineen and Panthers management opens the door for … oh, let's see … more of it to happen in a potential Game 7 in Sunrise?