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Sunset in Sunrise ... Season Finale Saturday: Washington Capitals @ Florida Panthers, 7 p.m.

Stillman ATLANTA -- Good morning hockey fans and early greetings from Terminal A at Hartsfield-Jackson International.

About to jump on my final flight home this hockey season, our next trip not scheduled until the NHL Draft takes over Montreal come June.

That's a long way away.

The Panthers play Game No. 82 on Saturday, the 18th hole of a season that won't be extended. The Panthers gave it a good run, winning five of their past seven but once more, it wasn't good enough.

The Panthers will have missed their eighth straight postseason when the playoffs for Lord Stanley's Cup kick off Wednesday night at a rink nowhere near you.

So who's to blame for Florida's failure to reach the postseason?

Hard to say. A lot of people have dumped their bitterness onto general manager Jacques Martin, and while he shouldn't get a free pass, some of y'all need to chill a bit.

Martin has been in this gig for three seasons now, and while there's no doubt the organization is better off now than that summer Sunday when he replaced a ''stepping down'' Mike Keenan, there are still holes.

Martin took over a foundering franchise, one that was trying to plug more holes than it had parts. Today, the Panthers are on the cusp of being a playoff team. Close, however, but not good enough. Martin probably should have addressed Florida's problems at forward at the trading deadline, but instead decided to bring in more defensive depth with Steve Eminger.

I stood behind JM when he decided to keep Jay Bouwmeester at the deadline, and I still do; that was the right decision at the time. Remember, Florida was not only in the thick of the playoff hunt at that time, they were a team that was looking to move forward and perhaps even overtake Philadelphia for fourth in the east.

Then they lost eight of 10, and well, here we are today.

At the deadline, JM had a few options at forward, but either couldn't get a deal done or decided against it. Knowing Rostislav Olesz would be coming back not long after the deadline, JM's hands were tied a bit. Florida needed Nick Tarnasky and Anthony Stewart (whose trade value probably wasn't much) for depth in case of injuries, but once Olesz came back, there was a stockpile. Tarnasky and Stewart haven't played much since Olesz returned.

It's easy to say JM should have brought in a forward or two, but for what? Brett McLean? Richard Zednik? Well, the answer would be Bouwmeester. He's really -- aside from Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and David Booth -- the only guy who would have brought anything of substancial value in a trade.

JM gambled that the team he was watching in February would be the same -- or even better -- in March and April. They showed flashes of that in the final weeks, but they didn't do so enough nor at the times needed. Thursday's win in Atlanta was nice, but it would have been better had they beaten the Thrashers at home a week before. Or not coughed up leads in Buffalo or at home against Columbus. Or done a touch better in shootouts this season.

There's plenty of reasons why the Panthers aren't in the playoffs this year, and plenty of blame to go around. But at the end of the day, Florida showed plenty of signs that they are a pretty good club. A few additions here, a few subtractions there and the Panthers are right in the thick of things, moving forward.

And, this may be hard to believe, but with a win Saturday against the Caps, Florida will end with 93 points. That's the second-highest total in franchise history, one better than the 1996 Panthers. That team, however, played a few more games once the regular season ended. This team will be looking for answers -- and good reads of the green.

-- Don't expect any news out of Pantherland today, coach Pete DeBoer giving the team the day off. So I booked a really early flight for nothing. Talk about gambling. You know what? Golf does sound good.

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