OTTAWA – Picked to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference before the season started by most experts, the Panthers are not only in the hunt for a playoff spot, but a division championship as well.
The Panthers went into the All-Star break with 55 points – tied with Washington for the Southeast Division lead and seventh overall in the conference.
There are 34 games left. Surprised?
“I am not surprised at all,'' said Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports. “Breaking down what [GM] Dale Tallon had done by bringing in a veteran presence and stability in goal with Jose Theodore, I'm not surprised with what Florida has done. I am a little surprised at where Washington is right now.
“[Coach] Kevin Dineen has made a huge difference as has [assistants] Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy. And of course, Dale Tallon as well. That team was crying out for leadership and direction. Look at what it has done for them.''
When the All-Star break ends, the Panthers could be in make-or-break mode as All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell put it on Friday. Florida opens with four divisional opponents – including two against Washington. The Capitals visit BankAtlantic Center in the first game after the break on Wednesday.
Defenseman Dennis Wideman was part of the Panthers salary purge at the trade deadline last February, sent to the Capitals for basically a third round draft pick. An All-Star selection this season,
Wideman knows it could be the Panthers keeping Washington from its fifth straight division title.
“They signed a lot of good players in the offseason so when things started, I looked at them as a contender, a playoff team,'' Wideman said. “They've been playing real well. It should be an interesting game after the break. It probably won't be a pretty game but it'll be intense. We have a lot of games down the stretch against the Panthers. These four point games are getting to be important.''
Both Dave Strader and Kevin Weekes have history with the Panthers organization and have paid attention to what Florida has done this season. Strader, Florida's television voice from 2005-07, credits Tallon's sweeping changes as the reason for the early success.
“I honestly thought Florida would be the surprise team in the Eastern Conference,'' said Strader, now with NBC. “It was such a terrific makeover of the roster, although you never know how a team will gel. But they have. I watch as many of their games as I can and it's great to see how the market has embraced what the team has done. I'm happy for everyone involved with the Panthers.''
Weekes, Florida's backup goalie in 1997-98 after being an original draft pick in 1993, gave credit to Dineen and Tallon for changing not only a losing atmosphere but bringing the fun back into the locker room. The Panthers, led by newcomers Kris Versteeg and Campbell, are a much looser bunch than in years past.
“I like that Dale Tallon thinks outside of the box so he didn't just take players based on predisposed notions,'' said Weekes, who works for the NHL Network. “He looks at the player and the person. I think he's done a great job with the transformation. And I played against Kevin Dineen and think he has a great approach to the game and it has rubbed off. They are in position to succeed now.
“It's very upbeat in Florida right now. Guys love coming to the rink, but know they have to work. It's still a game. You have to work, but it should be fun being an NHL player. I think you see that with the Panthers now. They have redefined who the Panthers are. They are an honest team and one that is fun to watch.''
One member of the Capitals who won't be facing the Panthers on Wednesday is star winger Alex Ovechkin. The NHL suspended him three games for a hit to the head on Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek and his first game served was Washington's win over Boston just before the break.
“No matter what he did, there was going to be some backlash,'' Wideman said. “I understand why he isn't here. As a suspended player, he didn't want to be a distraction. I respect his decision.''
() Campbell will be busy in Saturday's SuperSkills competition as he will compete in both the speed skating and accurate shot.