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NHL.com: Optimism Abounds In Florida

Friday, 04.4.2008 / 12:56 PM ET / Features
By Robert Picarello  - NHL.com Correspondent
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NHL.com: Optimism Abounds In Florida

Coach Jacques Martin and the Florida Panthers
are encouraged by the way they played away from
home this season, and could finish with 87 points.
Panthers-Thrashers video highlights 
While the Florida Panthers will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, there's reason to smile in Sunrise, Fla.

The Panthers played solid hockey down the stretch. Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Panthers are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and 8-3-1 in March, which was their best month of the season. Florida won seven straight games last month and picked up at least one point in nine straight. That unbelievable run in March allowed the Panthers to stay in the playoff race until the final days of the 2007-08 campaign.

The club also won a franchise-best 19 games on the road this year and can add another two victories to that total if it wins its final two games. Winning out also would give the Panthers 87 points, which would be one more than last year.

"I think every year the organization has gotten better – they've improved in points," backup goalie Craig Anderson said. "They've been one step closer to the playoffs. This is only my second season with the organization, but the way we finished last year was strong. I think we have the character to continue on with that from last year."

Next season, the Panthers not only will have the character, the team also will have the horses that are needed to contend in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. Florida has several key players locked up for next season and beyond, including its three top scorers – Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss.

Jokinen is signed for two more seasons, while Horton and Weiss both are signed for five more seasons. Starting goalie Tomas Vokoun is under contract for three more seasons, and defenseman Bryan Allen is signed for another four. Additionally, defenseman Mike Van Ryn and center Brett McLean have two seasons left on their contracts, while center Jozef Stumpel, right wings Radek Dvorak and Richard Zednik, left wing Ville Peltonen, defenseman Cory Murphy and Anderson all are signed for next season.

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Recent Southeast highlights:
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"There's a bright future here," Allen said. "It's going to be a great place to play, but we have to win in order to make the playoffs. I'm really excited about the future here. I think the mixture on this team is good. I think a mixture of veterans and youth is vital to any team because the way the game is played now you have to develop the players in your organization and get them ready to play. I think we have a good mix of older guys and young guys. But as a whole, we're a pretty young group. We're also a pretty close-knit group."

"I think every team needs youth and energy in the lineup and our veterans are great with the young guys," Anderson, who has won seven of his past eight starts, said. "They push them along and make them all feel like they're a part of the team. I don't think anyone on this team doesn't feel like he's a part of this team. Some teams are like that. They won't even talk to the younger guys, but not here. Everybody here jells together and everybody communicates well. Whether you're young or old, everyone has a part on this team."

Who's hot –
Florida's Craig Anderson has won five consecutive starts, dating back to Feb. 23, allowing a combined five goals in those games. Anderson also recorded back-to-back 1-0 shutouts during the impressive run, stopping a combined 93 shots in the two nail-biting wins. … Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk has 10 points in his last 10 games. Kovalchuk led the Thrashers with 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 15 games during March, posting five multi-point efforts and earning a plus-2 rating in those contests. … Tampa Bay forward Jeff Halpern has had a significant raise in his point production since joining the Lightning at the trade deadline. In 17 games with the Bolts, Halpern has contributed 10 goals and eight assists. … Carolina's Chad LaRose has five points in his last four games and four goals in his last three games, including a hat trick in a 6-2 win against Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. … Washington's Cristobal Huet has won his last seven starts and has posted two shutouts in his first month with the Capitals, including a 3-0 blanking of the Panthers last Saturday. Huet has a 9-2-0 record for the Caps, including a 4-1 win against the Hurricanes, when he turned aside 21 of the 22 shots he faced Tuesday night in Washington.

Southeast Quotes –
"It's been a tough year. We've had some personnel changes. We're trying to work together and get better as a team, but obviously, we know where we're at. We're trying to work for the future and trying to work hard to come together as a team."

– Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, on Wednesday night after the Lightning lost, 6-2, to the Carolina Hurricanes.

"You could tell what was at stake. If this is what it's like in the playoffs in the NHL, no wonder it's an exciting game. The NHL knew what they were doing when they put the schedule together. If they wanted tight races, they got it."

– Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, after the Capitals defeated the Hurricanes, 4-1, Tuesday to keep the battle for the Southeast Division title – and a playoff berth – alive.

A look ahead –
On Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes end their season against Florida. On Saturday, the rest of the Southeast Division closes out their regular seasons, as the Panthers travel to Washington and the Atlanta Thrashers host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Author: Robert Picarello | NHL.com Correspondent




1 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69


J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

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