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The Panthers held fan appreciation night Saturday and finally gave their patrons something to truly celebrate.
Instead of looking to the distant future and dreading another long offseason, the Panthers regular season finale marked not the final game of the year but a new start.
For the first time since 2000, Florida is going to the Stanley Cup playoffs. And, by virtue of Saturday's 4-1 win over Carolina, the Panthers celebrated with the first division championship in franchise history in front of an announced 19,087 at BankAtlantic Center.
Florida spent a total of 128 days atop the division including the past 43.
“It wasn't given, it was an earned title,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “There have been some highs and lows and we haven't had many Ws lately. To win this one is great satisfaction. I like to look at the short term and this is very enjoyable. It makes for a happy Easter and then we'll get going on Monday.''
The Southeast Division champion Panthers are the third seed in the opening round of the playoffs and will face former coach Pete DeBoer and the New Jersey Devils. Game 1 is expected to be held Thursday at the BankAtlantic Center. DeBoer was fired the day after last season's finale.
"When we played them the first time, I'm not going to lie, there was some emotion involved," DeBoer told reporters after New Jersey's win over Ottawa on Saturday. "But it's another team for me now. It doesn't matter. Other than having a few more friends in the stands, that's about it."
The Panthers head into the playoffs feeling a little better about themselves as the win snapped a five-game winless streak. It also added fuel to what now has to be a full-blown goalie controversy.
Backup Scott Clemmensen made yet another strong case for himself as he stopped 34 shots to continue his strong play. Considering how well Clemmensen has played against New Jersey – his former employers – Dineen definitely has a hard decision to make.
Theodore, who gave up nine goals in losses to Winnipeg and Washington, is just 8-14-3 against the Devils and 1-0-1 against them this season.
Clemmensen, who spent most of his career with the Devils before coming to the Panthers in 2009, is 4-0 against New Jersey and 1-0 this season.
Clemmensen got plenty of offensive help as the Panthers looked fresh and loose what with the pressure of making the playoffs off their backs. The Panthers jumped to a 2-0 lead within the opening seven minutes as Marcel Goc and John Madden scored within a span of 2:41.
“This was a big game for us and two goals right off the bat was huge,'' said Clemmensen, who is 3-0-1 in his past four games with just five goals surrendered. “It was a lot of fun to play here [Saturday].''
Goc totally faked out backup Brian Boucher and was able to walk in and pot the puck into an empty net 4:02 into the game. Madden then got his third of the season as he took a nice feed from Tomas Kopecky in front of the net and popped in a shot.
Florida didn't get too many more chances after that, although it did cash in on a power play midway through the second when Stephen Weiss banged in a juicy rebound off a Mikael Samuelsson shot.
Although the Panthers coughed up a 3-0 lead last Tuesday against Winnipeg, this one felt safe. And with Washington dominating the Rangers in New York, Florida didn't have worry about scoreboard watching. Had the Panthers lost in regulation, the Capitals would have taken the division.
“Honestly it's a great feeling,'' Weiss said. “The last game here against Winnipeg was tough to swallow. It was nice to win here in front of our fans. They deserve this. They've been great sticking with us. I'm happy for them.''
Weiss played in his 637th NHL game on Saturday, the final regular season game he will play without reaching the postseason. Former teammate Jay Bouwmeester left the organization in 2008 for pastures that haven't exactly been greener.
Bouwmeester, in his third season with Calgary, holds the active mark of 717 games without appearing in a playoff game. Former Panthers captain Olli Jokinen went a record 799 games before Calgary made it to the postseason in 2009.
The Panthers will make their fourth appearance in the postseason this week after a record 11-year (10 season) drought.
--Dineen said Saturday morning that he didn't realize the Panthers reached the playoffs until after everyone else did. With about three minutes left in Tuesday's game, the Capitals scoreboard showed that Philadelphia had beaten Buffalo – clinching a spot for the Panthers.
“I think you get wrapped up into [the game],'' Dineen said. “They had it on the screen, I guess, a couple of minutes before, but I missed that. So I didn’t know until after. There was still disappointment you lost the game, but there was a moment right then when I was told where I was like, 'whoa, a lot of work went into securing a playoff spot.' .-.-. I think there’s a level of satisfaction that a lot of work went into getting us in the postseason.”
--Carolina's Jeremy Welsh had quite a week in the Sunshine State. On Thursday, he played for Union College in the Frozen Four in Tampa then signed a deal with the Hurricanes after Ferris State beat the Dutchmen 3-1.
On Saturday, Welsh made his NHL debut against the Panthers.