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Something To Cheer For

The Panthers, after 12 years of pain, after 12 years of sadness and disappointment, will be playoff participants for the first time since 2000.

Tuesday, 04.10.2012 / 6:47 PM ET / News
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Something To Cheer For
By Michael Russo, Special to FloridaPanthers.com

“Hey, we’re relevant again. We’re not in the B pool anymore. How good are we? I know we’re better, but we’ll find out how good.” – Panthers Assistant GM Mike Santos last July.

Defenseman Ed Jovanovski
Months later, months after they went on a spending spree for the ages to completely overhaul their roster and build a bridge between now and the future, the Panthers are indeed relevant and much, much better.

The Panthers are arguably the greatest feel-good story of this NHL season.

The Panthers, after 12 years of pain, after 12 years of sadness and disappointment, will be playoff participants for the first time since 2000.

It’s the culmination of the stability owner Cliff Viner has brought to the Panthers and the vision and plan carried out by executives Dale Tallon, the Panthers’ old-school, straight shooter of a GM, and Santos.

“It’s a huge moment for us,” said President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Yormark. “It’s a big moment for us and a big moment for all of our fans. We’re just looking forward to what’s ahead.”

As Yormark says, since 2000, the Panthers have “given no reason for hockey fans in South Florida to fall in a love with us, but we’ve given them reason this season.”

Last summer, when the Panthers added Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky before free agency and Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim on July 1, nobody could have envisioned the Panthers could assimilate their players so quickly.

The neat thing is, this was all supposed to be a bridge toward tomorrow as the Panthers buy time for the mass of talent on the horizon -- kids like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Petrovic, Drew Shore and Quinton Howden.

“Having a changeover that this organization did, it could have gone either way,” Jovanovski said. “Trying to get guys to gel together and feel good about it could have been tough, but it’s worked. We’ve maintained that consistency throughout the year. We rode the highs. We tried to shrug off the lows as quick as possible.”

The Panthers gained a cushion early, overcame a slew of injuries and put together a terrific season under first-year coach Kevin Dineen.

He’s proud he’s at the helm for the end of the sad era.

“We can sit here and try to downplay things, but it’s part of our history and it’s not a proud part of our history,” Dineen said.

Starting last trade deadline when the Panthers cleared a ton of salary-cap room, Tallon and Santos had a blueprint and executed it to perfection.

A cool part of the story is the fact that Jovanovski, who helped lead the Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals as a rookie, is back for the end of the streak.

But the neatest part is that Stephen Weiss will get to taste playoff hockey.

There’s been a revolving door of people entering and exiting BankAtlantic Center over the past decade.

But Weiss has always remained, loyal beyond belief. When Tallon took over as GM two Mays ago after building the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup winner, he sat down with Weiss and gave him every opportunity to say, “Trade me.”

Forward Stephen Weiss
Weiss’ response as player after player asked out?

“I said, ‘I want to be here. I believe in you and what you did in Chicago and I want to see this team turn around,’” Weiss said.

Since the Panthers last made the playoffs, they’ve had eight coaches and seven GM’s. Dozens of players have come and gone since Weiss was selected fourth overall in the 2001 draft.

But Weiss remained committed and is finally seeing it pay off. Weiss has played 637 games without a playoff appearance.

“I’ve come full circle,” Weiss, 29, said. “I’ve been through all the trials and tribulations. The turnover, a lot of players have been in and out, a lot of coaches, assistant coaches, GM’s in and out. It has been tough. There’s never really been a familiarity with anything here.

“You meet new, good friends and all of a sudden they’re gone. And it hasn’t been one or two guys. We’re shipping out six or seven guys a deadline.

“So to be here through all of that, it’s hard not to think about the moment of my first playoff game. I try not to. I try to focus on one game at a time, you know, that old cliché. But it’ll be a nice moment for sure to finally get in and look back at all the crap that’s gone on and that I’ve been the one to stick it out.

“It’ll be worth it.”

Weiss has played more games in a Panthers’ uniform than anybody in history and he’s their second-leading scorer. He’s lived through extraordinary moments, like when he got a front-row seat to the power struggle between Keenan, when he was coach, and Rick Dudley, when he was GM, during his first full season.

On the night of Oct. 15, 2002, the Panthers lost to the Wild, 4-1.

“I think I had an assist and Keenan came and sat with me on the plane from Minnesota to Chicago. He said, ‘If you’re not our best player in Chicago, I’m sending you back to junior.’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Weiss said. “I came in the next morning for practice and before I even got in the dressing room, he pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going back.’

“Then I get a call from Mr. Dudley and he goes, ‘Don’t go anywhere.’ I said, ‘Oh God, here we go.’”

Dudley sped in a rental car from St. Louis to Chicago to save the day.

“I came in for the morning skate on game day and all the boys were in the locker room laughing. It was an interesting 24 hours, for sure,” Weiss said.

Yeah, Welcome to Florida! Weiss ended up staying and has never left.

He’s excited for the fans who have stuck by the Panthers.

“There’s a core group there that are awesome,” Weiss said. “They’re there every night and they want it really bad. It’ll be great for them to see some playoff hockey because they deserve it. I’m excited about the position we’re in, but we’re not throwing any parties yet.”

Michael Russo covered the Florida Panthers from 1995-2005 for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and now covers the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.




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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