A Night To Remember
On the eve of the Franchise's first Game 7 since 1996, a look back at the night that got them there, giving them home ice for the crucial game.
|The Panthers celebrate won of their four goals in defeating Carolina 4-1 on the last day of the Regular Season to clinch the Southeast Division Championship. (Getty Images)|
Like all his players on the ice, all the Panthers employees and all the fans at the almost-sold-out BankAtlantic Center, Kevin Dineen wanted to soak in the moment.
His normal routine throughout the season had been to turn around and head to the dressing room almost as soon as the game ended.
But not on this night of April 7.
This was no normal game.
It was a night when the Panthers wanted to celebrate, when the Panthers deserved to celebrate.
The scoreboard had reached 0.0, and the number of shots on goal had been replaced by three simple words in front of the Panthers logo.
Three words that said it all:
With plastic rats raining down from the stands, continuing that great tradition that began more than 15 years ago, the players congregated in front of the Florida net and then skated to center ice to acknowledge the fans.
Dineen, meanwhile, looked out onto the ice at his players but also looked to the stands.
“I was looking for my family,” Dineen would say about 30 minutes later. “I was trying to find them. I know where they sit in the stands and I was trying to find my kids and trying to catch their eye. For me, it’s been a wonderful year. It’s been a lot of transition. That’s never an easy thing. That’s not an individual; it’s your whole family that has to go through that. You come to a new place and you want to be a part of things and things have worked out well. You want to enjoy that with the whole crew.
“For me, rarely do I stay on the bench, but I wanted to see our players go out there and enjoy that moment and a little bit of certain satisfaction for myself and my family.”
Sorry, Mick Jagger, but there was a whole lot of satisfaction to be found in Sunrise that memorable night of April 7, 2012.
As reporters waited outside the Panthers dressing room to address a bunch of joyous players, some empty boxes were lying on the floor near the door.
Moments earlier, those boxes had contained Southeast Division Champions hats and T-shirts, and now those hats and T-shirts were being worn by the players who had just given the Panthers the first division title in franchise history with a 4-1 victory against Carolina.
Actually, everyone in the dressing room was wearing the hat.
And there were a lot of folks in the dressing room that night, from general partner Cliff Viner to most of the other partners, to team president Michael Yormark, to General Manager Dale Tallon, to the coaches, players and members of the communications department.
There also were smiles everywhere.
“It means a lot, not just to me but to everybody,” Viner said. “When everybody puts in this much amount of work, this much amount of heart, this much amount of dedication for one thing and we all get it, it means a lot to everybody, not just me.”
|Forwards John Madden and Tomas Kopecky help the Panthers clinch their first division championship in franchise history. (Getty Images)|
Amid the celebration, Yormark inadvertently committed the faux pas of stepping on the Panthers logo in the locker room.
That kind of misstep normally would earn the offender a reprimand or a dirty look, but not on this night.
Everyone was too busy celebrating.
“Pretty awesome,” is how Stephen Weiss summed up his feelings. “It’s a surreal feeling.”
Weiss had been a focal point down the stretch — clearly not by choice — as the Panthers tried to nail down the first playoff berth of his NHL career, which began in 2002 when he was 19.
Often referred to as the face of the franchise or the heart and soul of the team — by Dineen and his teammates — Weiss was filled with gratitude as the Panthers closed in on their goal.
He wanted to say something to his teammates but also wanted to wait for the right moment.
The right moment wasn’t the night the Panthers actually clinched a playoff berth because they lost at Washington and got in because Buffalo lost at Philadelphia.
But now that the Panthers had won the division title with the victory against Carolina, the time was right.
So after Tallon and Dineen addressed the team, Weiss took the floor.
“It was just something I wanted to do because it’s been so long and there were points in the season where it got really tough,” Weiss said. “It got tough down the stretch and people were doubting us. The only people that believe in what we were trying to do were the guys in the room. We found a way to get it done. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.
“I just wanted them to know that I appreciated them coming in with the right attitude because it’s easy to come in here and say all the right things and then let the weather and everything else be a distraction, and we didn’t do that.”
Because he had never made the playoffs, Weiss found himself discussing the topic time and time again in the final weeks of the regular season.
And it was no different on the morning of April 7.
The only difference was that, for the first time, he was talking after a morning skate with his team already assured of a playoff spot.
The one goal left to accomplish for the Panthers that night against Carolina was wrapping a Southeast Division title that seemed rightfully theirs after they had held first place for more than two-thirds of the regular season.
All that stood between the Panthers and the title was one point, whether it be a Washington loss against the Atlantic Division champion New York Rangers, a Panthers victory or a Panthers loss in overtime or a shootout.
The pressure of trying to make the playoffs was gone. Weiss, for one, believed it would make a big difference in the Panthers’ play as they tried to snap a season-long five-game losing streak.
“When you look back on the last couple of weeks, I think it has been weighing on us,” Weiss said. “We wouldn’t say it is, but you just can tell with some of our play at spurts in games. We seemed to tighten up here and there. It’s a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone’s shoulders. It’s nice to know that we’re in no matter what and now we can relax and hopefully have a crisp game tonight.”
With the Washington game starting an hour before their own, the Panthers actually were in a position to find out they had clinched the Southeast title before their game against Carolina was over.
But it didn’t work out that way. As Dineen made his way to the bench for the start of the Panthers game, he caught a glimpse of a TV tuned in to the Washington-Rangers game and saw the Capitals already leading 3-0.
The Panthers would have to do it on their own.
The Panthers led 3-0 before Carolina finally scored at the 8:26 mark of the third period, but Mikael Samuelsson ended any suspense with an empty-net goal with 1:24 left.
|Defenseman Brian Campbell is all smiles after the Panthers ended the Regular Season with the best record in the Southeast, giving them the third seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. (Getty Images)|
As a prelude of things to come, there were a couple of rats thrown onto the ice after Samuelsson’s goal, followed by the public-address announcement asking for self-restraint and warning that the Panthers could be assessed a penalty if things got out of control.
Eighty-seconds later, there was no need for self-restraint. The rats were welcome, encouraged even.
Those fans who have stuck with the Panthers deserved to celebrate.
“The building had a shake to it tonight,” Dineen said. “When you see our fans have that, that’s sincere. I don’t think that’s something that just happens because you’ve got a free Saturday night. That’s not just the course of the year that we’ve built that. That’s people that have gone through what Stephen Weiss has gone through. It’s been a little bit of pain to enjoy a night like tonight. Some teams are happy to win some divisions or to make the playoffs. For our group, I think that’s a great accomplishment and we’re hoping that’s just step one.”
Two days later, Tallon would be asked when he thought the idea of the Panthers winning a division title this season became realistic.
“What was the date on Saturday?” he said, laughing. “You just never know. You talk to the 29 other buddies that are general managers and every night your stomach is in turmoil. If you care, you’re certainly going to be tied in knots every night. But it’s fun. It was exciting to go to the rink the last month and the last seven or eight games were pretty exciting. But it was well worth it.”
Dineen had echoed those sentiments at his postgame press conference.
“Ouf!” Dineen began. “It wasn’t a given, that’s for sure. You look at different snapshots of the season and there’s been some highs and lows and we’ve gone through a stretch where we haven’t had too many W’s after our games recently and to finish with one with such importance is a great satisfaction.
“By now you guys know I like to look at the short term and this is a very enjoyable short-term moment for us.”
It was short term for Dineen because he had the playoffs to think about.
Make no mistake, though, the memory of that night will last a long time.