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WASHINGTON – Dale Tallon usually huffs and puffs after his Panthers lose a game. Many times, the team's general manager is completely unapproachable.
Not on Thursday.
It would have been hard to know the Panthers suffered yet another loss on Thursday – this one a 4-2 decision to the host Capitals – by looking at Tallon. The Panthers affable executive who wears his emotions like a sweater vest was smiling and offering fist bumps to anyone walking by. Owner Cliff Viner got a bear hug from Tallon.
That's what happens when your team clinches its first playoff spot in more than a decade.
Yes, it's true: The Florida Panthers are going to the playoffs.
Despite Thursday's loss – Florida's eighth in nine games and fifth straight – the Panthers ended an NHL record run of 10 straight seasons between playoff appearances. Florida hasn't been to the postseason in 12 years with its final shot coming in 2000 when the team was swept by New Jersey.
Although he hadn't had much time to enjoy the moment, Stephen Weiss was obviously taken aback by the moment. Weiss, the face of the Panthers, has spent a long time waiting for this moment. The loss to the Capitals wasn't going to mess it up.
“It really hasn't sunk in yet,'' said Weiss, selected fourth overall by the Panthers at the Sunrise-held draft in 2001. “I couldn't care less how it happened. We're in. Anything can happen. We're really excited. If we play the way we played [Thursday], we'll be all right. We just need to score some goals.''
Viner decided to fly up for the game on Thursday as Florida came into the night needing one point to clinch the Southeast Division or a Buffalo loss to simply clinch a spot. The Panthers didn't get the point they wanted after falling behind 3-0 to the Capitals, but Philadelphia did Florida a solid by dropping the Sabres 2-1.
“We got some help, but we put ourselves in that position,'' Tallon said. “I'm so proud of our players and staff for sticking with it. They gave their hearts and soul to this. This came from within. The character of this group is second to none. It's been a real eventful year. They all believe in one another. They deserve this.''
Philadelphia's win also eliminated Buffalo from postseason consideration as Washington claimed a spot in the dance as well. If Florida gets its point Saturday against Carolina, it wins the division and the third spot in the east.
If the Panthers lose in regulation and Washington wins in New York, the Panthers become the eighth seed as the Capitals claim the division championship.
For now, however, that doesn't much matter.
“We're in and I think this was good for us. We tasted what the playoffs are going to feel like,'' said defenseman Brian Campbell, who came to the Panthers from Chicago in June.
“It was a loss, but a lot of good things came out of this game. We need to bring what we brought here on Saturday and we'll be fine. We've learned a lot about ourselves lately.''
Thursday's game couldn't have gone worse for the Panthers as Washington pounced for an early goal in the first and two quick ones in the second.
Coach Kevin Dineen pulled former Caps goalie Jose Theodore after Brooks Laich – who has promised the Capitals are making the postseason – at 9:49 of the second. Theodore skated to the bench as fans serenaded him with a mock 'Theo! Theo!' chant.
Theodore's benching didn't last long, however, with Dineen putting him back out after a breather at the next break. Scott Clemmensen made one save in 1:31 worth of work.
Florida was able to take some momentum into the third when Mikael Samuelsson scored Florida's first goal in Washington this season by whipping a wrist shot from the left circle with 4:19 left in the period.
The Panthers were shutout by former Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun in the first two trips here, although Vokoun is battling a groin muscle injury that may keep him out for the rest of the season.
The Panthers then made it a 3-2 game seconds into the third period when Ed Jovanovski – who has played in 67 of the franchise's 71 postseason games – threw up a knuckleball shot that fluttered past replacement goalie Braden Holtby. Michal Neuvirth was knocked out of the game in the second when Florida's Marco Sturm landed on his left leg. Neuvirth needed help to get to the locker room and didn't return.
Despite putting tons of pressure on Holtby, the Panthers failed to get anything else through. Alexander Semin put the finishing touches on the Panthers with 1:02 left, but by then, Campbell said the Panthers already knew they were in.
A loss never felt so good.
“The big picture is it's been a hard-fought, enjoyable year,'' Dineen said. “They put the work in and it's nice to see that it pays off. There was a lot of effort – and money – to make this thing work. There's a lot of credit to go around.''
() Tickets to the Panthers first round will go on sale on Saturday at 10 a.m. Tickets will be available at ticketmaster.com and also at the BankAtlantic Center.
“It's been a long time coming,'' team president Michael Yormark said.