Panthers clinch playoff spot for first time since 2000

Everybody was making jokes at the Panthers' expense last summer. There were the Dale Tallon jokes, with the Florida GM filling out the roster with great speed, and sizeable contracts. As free agency opened, the league looked on in awe as Florida announced signing after signing. There was the roster, filled with players that most hockey fans across the league were ready to dismiss as a laughable collection of misfits who didn't seem to fit in anywhere else. By the time training camp opened, half the roster had been turned over, and the team was being led by a first-year NHL coach.

Most people thought the Panthers would be lucky if they could claw themselves a few spots higher out of the basement they'd languished in for the past few seasons; the idea of Florida making the 2012 playoffs seemed near-ludicrous.

Who's laughing now?

picture by Cheryl AdamsThere's 14 teams who'll be heading out for their summer vacations by the time Saturday's games have finished. Among them is cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning, who last year made it to the third round before being ousted by eventual Stanley Cup champs, the Boston Bruins. Winnipeg, who rallied late in the season and desperately wanted to reward their wildly enthusiastic fans with a playoff appearance, couldn't do it.  Buffalo's hopes were dashed tonight in a loss to Philadelphia. Dallas once again finds themselves in 9th place, looking at what might have been, a playoff berth slipping through their fingers in the final games of the season. At one time or another this season, every team in the Eastern conference was in contention for a playoff spot.

In fact, it was Buffalo's loss tonight that clinched both Florida and Washington's playoff berths while the two Southeast division rivals were still on the ice for their own game. While the Panthers have held onto the Southeast lead for most of the season, the Capitals have shown late-season drive and surged past other hopeful playoff contenders; now the two teams sit just 2 points apart, with Washington holding the upper hand in tiebreakers.

"I couldn't care less how it happened," Stephen Weiss said after the game. "All you gotta do is get in. We're in. Anything can happen."

Weiss has spent his entire career with the Panthers since being drafted by the team fourth overall in 2001. At 636 games played for Florida, he's the team's longest-tenured Panther. Only one other active NHL player has gone longer without reaching the playoffs - Jay Bouwmeester of the Calgary Flames (715 games), who also formerly played for the Panthers.

The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since 2000. They were swept in that series by the New Jersey Devils, who - interestingly enough - are likely to be in the #6 position and will play against Florida, if the Cats can clinch the division title on Saturday night.

There's a reminder on the boards right behind the Panther's goal in their home rink in Sunrise, an advertisement with the copy "Go big or go home", a daily reminder about the hockey life.

The Panthers know they have an uphill battle to avoid "going home" in the playoffs. One of their most glaring statistics is stacked against them: their goal differential is -27, a number far more commonly seen at the bottom of the league, not among playoff contenders and certainly not strung next to division leaders. The Panthers rank 27th in the league for goals scored, and in the playoffs, it goes without saying that there's no room for going large stretches without scoring goals - and Florida has been struggling for goals as of late. They're also not very strong on the PK - 25th overall - so it's good that they're not getting penalized often.

What is in the Panthers favor? Well, Florida doesn't take a lot of penalties, and among the Eastern playoff contenders, only one team takes fewer PIM: Washington. And they're surprisingly good at the PP, 10th overall (6th among playoff teams).

It's important for the Panthers at this point to clinch the division title on Saturday, which would place them third and give them home ice advantage, versus a potential 7th or 8th place finish. The Capitals have held that title for four seasons, and will fight tooth and nail against the Rangers on Saturday in an attempt to take it away from Florida. On the other hand, the Rangers are seeking to clinch the President's Trophy - and, if Washington ends up as 8th seed, then Saturday's game will be a preview for the playoffs. Expect the Rangers to be in prime form.

The Panthers are aware how important their own game will be this Saturday. After hovering at or near the top of their division most of the season, it's going to come down to game 82 for them.

"We don't make anything easy for ourselves," Weiss admitted after the game.

The Panthers finish out their season against a fellow Southeast division rival, the Carolina Hurricanes. Panthers coach Kevin Dineen spent 12 seasons with the Whalers/Hurricanes organization after being drafted by them in 1982. Dineen made it to the playoffs six times with Hartford (1986-1991) and once with Carolina (1999); his only other playoff appearance was with the 1994-95 Flyers. So long as the Panthers take at least one point out of Saturday's game vs. the Hurricanes, they will win their division.

Coach Dineen deserves to be a Jack Adams finalist this year. Other coaches stepped into vacancies on teams that had established cores and whose players had grown together for a few seasons. Dineen came into a team that had been turned upside down and inside out, more than half the roster gutted. What was left standing was filled out with rookies and players acquired from across the league. Only a handful had played together before, and some of the new teammates had been bitter rivals just a few months earlier.

Does it sound familiar? Turn this story into baseball, and it could be Major League. Instead, Dineen turned one of the worst teams into the league into playoff contenders. He - and the players themselves - got them into the playoffs.

Now, as Stephen Weiss said, it's up to them to make something of that chance.

 

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The Florida Panthers host the Carolina Hurricanes at the BankAtlantic Center on Saturday, April 7th at 7:30 p.m. EDT. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Carolina, as well as 560 WQAM radio (Florida).