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Panthers On Brink Of Ending NHL Playoff Drought

Monday, 04.2.2012 / 2:30 PM ET / News
Associated Press
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Panthers On Brink Of Ending NHL Playoff Drought
The Panthers have their first crack at clinching a playoff spot on Tuesday. A win against Winnipeg, regulation loss by Buffalo or post-regulation losses by both (Florida/Buffalo) puts them in the 2012 playoffs.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) - Hockey's longest active playoff drought may finally be ending.

Not a moment too soon for the Florida Panthers, either.

If the Panthers beat Winnipeg on home ice Tuesday night, Florida will be headed to the postseason for the first time since 2000. Only six teams from the four major U.S. sports leagues are currently going longer than the Panthers without a postseason appearance - the NFL's Buffalo Bills, and baseball teams in Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City, Washington and Pittsburgh.

"I'd hope we think it's our destiny," Panthers forward Kris Versteeg said.

Entering Monday, the Panthers led Washington by three points in the Southeast Division, plus held a five-point edge over Buffalo with three games remaining. The Southeast race for the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed could go down to Saturday's finales - Florida has never won a division crown - but regardless of what the Buffalo Sabres or Washington Capitals do going forward, a two-point night Tuesday would be enough to wrap up a Florida postseason celebration.

A really, really, long-awaited celebration, that is.

And while the odds overwhelmingly suggest the Panthers will make the playoffs even if they lose Tuesday, Florida would rather clinch on home ice.

"You know what? This community and our fans deserve this, and our players know it," Panthers President Michael Yormark said Monday. "I've been traveling with the team for the last week and they feel it, they know it. These fans have supported us for so long. We've got a core and this core stuck with us. And so the opportunity to clinch at home in front of hopefully a really good crowd ... would be thrilling."

There's some symmetry that may be at work on Tuesday as well.

Florida's second-leading scorer this season, Stephen Weiss was a teenager when the Panthers drafted him No. 4 overall in 2001. His 29th birthday is Tuesday, and only one active player - former Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary - has been in more NHL regular-season games without skating on playoff ice.

"We won't look past Tuesday," Panthers first-year coach Kevin Dineen said Sunday after his team lost to Detroit in a shootout, an Achilles' heel for Florida this season. "I've been giving you the same schtick for a couple months now. But certainly, we're excited."

Some of the numbers are staggering.

Since the Panthers last played a playoff game, 563 names (some of them duplicate) have been etched on the Stanley Cup. More than 200 players have skated with Florida for at least one game. Brian Rafalski has been in 161 postseason contests, Martin Brodeur has won 61 playoff games, Patrick Marleau has 50 playoff goals. Versteeg got his name on the Cup twice in the same year; the first one was misspelled and scratched off, a rare correction on hockey's chalice.

"The ball's in our court," said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who like Versteeg helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010. "Obviously for our division, it's in our hands. We have the opportunity. We're still looking at that. First you need to clinch a playoff spot and that's something that we're working on. So it'll be an exciting game Tuesday night against a division rival, a must-win game for us."

It's no coincidence that Campbell, Versteeg, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky are in Florida now after helping the Blackhawks end a 49-year drought without titles. Dale Tallon put together much of the core of that Chicago team when he was general manager there, and took over as Florida's GM about a month before the Blackhawks won their championship.

Tallon addressed the Panthers for about 90 seconds on Saturday, simply calming down an anxious bunch that had been stumbling of late.

"It's not something that he does a lot," Dineen said. "But I thought it was a very strong message he delivered. ... Dale speaking from his heart is what it was."

Buffalo hasn't been to the NFL playoffs since the wild-card round following the 1999 season. In baseball, Washington (then as Montreal) was in the postseason last in 1981, Kansas City in 1985, Pittsburgh in 1992, Toronto in 1993 and Baltimore in 1997.

If Florida gets out of that dubious club, its attention will turn toward snapping another drought.

The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since 1997. As early as next week, that might change as well.

"If we get in, and God willing we will get in, then it's a whole new chapter for us," Yormark said. "Then we can focus on what kind of run we can make in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But this season has been defined around getting into the postseason. And we can taste it. We can feel it. We can smell it. It's right in front of us. It's in our grasp and now we've just got to go out and take care of business."

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Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
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

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
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
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

 
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