WASHINGTON – The Florida Panthers may have sneaked in through the back door, but they are finally in the house.
The Panthers – yes, the Panthers – are headed to the playoffs after more than a decade.
Philadelphia's 2-1 victory over Buffalo on Thursday ensured the Panthers moved on despite what happened against the Capitals at Verizon Center. The Panthers will either go in as the third seed – as division champ – or the eighth.
Regardless, it's been a long time coming.
How long? Florida's last appearance in the NHL's big dance came in 2000 when the likes of Pavel Bure, Ray Whitney, Viktor Kozlov, Scott Mellanby, Robert Svehla and Mike Vernon led the Panthers into the playoffs for their third appearance.
Of the 2000 Panthers who participated in the postseason, only two – Whitney and Jaroslav Spacek – are still active NHL players.
One could go through the cliched “what gas cost” when the Panthers last made the playoffs, or what the top pop single was. We won't. But, Bill Clinton was still residing at the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just a few blocks from this arena. OK, gas cost around $1.60 a gallon – which was a big increase over past months. Some call those the good old days.
Florida's NHL record of missing the playoffs for 10 seasons and 11 years still stands, although the active mark for a team missing the postseason the longest now belongs to someone else. And it's Toronto. The storied Maple Leafs have now missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.
The BankAtlantic Center – formerly the National Car Rental Center – has played host to just two postseason games since opening in 1998. The Panthers lost both of them to the Devils in 2000 as New Jersey swept the Panthers en route to the Stanley Cup title.
The Panthers get another taste of the playoffs next week.
It's been a long wait.