Florida Panthers\' Erik Gudbranson, center, celebrates with teammates after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 during an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
SUNRISE, Fla. - When the Florida Panthers were struggling down the stretch of trying to snap the longest active NHL playoff drought, those inside the locker room tried to insist everything was fine.
Turns out, the Panthers weren't being totally honest as they sputtered toward the finish line.
"It has been weighing on us," Panthers centre Stephen Weiss said. "We wouldn't say it is, but you could just tell with some of our play. We'd seem to tighten up here and there. There was a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone's shoulders."
That pressure's gone now.
Even with just two wins in its final 10 games, Florida's 12-year post-season drought is no more.
Thanks to a 4-1 win over Carolina in the season finale, the first Southeast Division championship banner in franchise history will soon sway over the Panthers' ice, and they'll open the Eastern Conference playoffs at home Friday night against the New Jersey Devils. As if the wait for playoff hockey wasn't long enough in South Florida, the Panthers-Devils series will be the last of the eight first-rounders across the league to get started.
"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," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "And to finish the season with one, with such importance, I think is a great satisfaction."
The Panthers took Sunday off, then will begin the process of getting ready for New Jersey on Monday.
There's more than a few ties that bind these clubs.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer spent the past three seasons on Florida's bench, before the Panthers decided to go a different way. Florida forward John Madden won two of his three Stanley Cups with the Devils. Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen—who was in net for the division-clincher, and may get the call over Jose Theodore for Game 1 against the Devils—spent seven years in the New Jersey organization.
"I'll have a few more friends in the crowd in Florida from my time there," DeBoer said. "But other than that, no special meaning."
Florida and New Jersey split four games in the regular season.
"Pete's done a wonderful job this year," Dineen said. "They've got some really entertaining players and I'm not blowing smoke, that's a good team we're going to play. So we're going to need to be at the top of our game in the playoffs to have success in Round 1."
By now, the Panthers are usually golfing. So all this may seem like a bonus anyway.
A stack of empty cardboard boxes were stacked outside the locker room after Saturday night's win—they were the ones that held the division championship hats, which had been tucked away for longer than anyone inside the organization wanted. Inside the room, the biggest rule may be the one barring anyone from walking on the team logo in the middle of the carpet.
Anyone who even steps near it is typically shouted down by the players who see the approach. During the celebration, someone forgot the rule.
That was team president Michael Yormark.
Everyone was so happy, hardly anyone noticed. The Panthers moved back into first place on Feb. 25, and never slipped from that spot again.
"Everybody wanted it so badly," Clemmensen said. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy. You draw it up in a perfect world, we'd be 10 points ahead going into the end. As it is, this league is very difficult to play in. You don't expect things to go perfectly for you. The best you can do is just stay with your game. Ultimately, we never lost the drivers' seat. We never lost the pole position."
When it was over Saturday night, Weiss was one of the first to get to Clemmensen to start the celebration. Fans threw plastic toy rats—a tradition that dates back to the Panthers' run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996—onto the ice, and players waved their sticks in a salute.
On the Florida bench, Dineen stuck his hands into his pockets for a moment, took a long look at his team, then gazed into the crowd.
"I was looking for my family," Dineen said. "I was trying to find them. I know where they sit up in the stands and I was trying to find my kids and try 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, that's your whole family that has to go through that. ... Rarely do I stay on the bench, but I wanted to see our players go out there and enjoy that moment."
More moments may await, starting Friday.
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