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Florida Panthers On Verge of Postseason Despite 2-1 SO Loss to Red Wings ... Cats Win Tuesday v Winnipeg Equals Playoffs

2000BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

DETROIT – Stephen Weiss swears he isn't looking too far ahead. Tuesday is not only Weiss' 29th birthday, but it could be the biggest day of his hockey career.

“I'm excited to get the game going. I'm excited to get home. Look at me, I have goosebumps,'' Weiss said softly, his head down as he avoided making eye contact. 

“Right now I want to get some food, get some rest and and we'll get after it Tuesday. Hopefully it's a great birthday.''

After escaping Detroit with another point in the standings following yet another shootout loss – this one went 2-1 to the Red Wings – the Panthers stand poised to do something they've never done in Weiss' decade with the team.

One way or another, the Panthers can clinch a playoff berth on Tuesday as they host Winnipeg. 

The Panthers have now lost 11 games in the shootout and 17 overall in overtime, yet Sunday's defeat at Joe Louis Arena almost felt like a victory. Sure, Florida left yet another point out in space, but this point – coming at the end of a long, four-game road trip – was fairly satisfying.

(Top photo courtesy of Jose Luis/@Jose97Luis)

“It's a good point for us,'' Weiss said. “We got our structure back. We play like that, we'll be more than OK.''

Florida knows what's next: Win on Tuesday and the SClogoPanthers are going to the NHL's big dance for the first time since the 'Russian Rocket' days of Pavel Bure way back in 2000. 

“This is a good opportunity for us but we have to play well at home,'' defenseman Brian Campbell said. “Our goal was to make the playoffs and we're going to go after it.''

Florida limped into the Motor City, a team with a faulty clutch. The Panthers had lost five of six – it's now six of seven, but who's counting? – with two bad losses in Minnesota and Columbus fresh in their collective memories. 

On Saturday, general manager Dale Tallon spoke to the team for only the second time this season. Tallon didn't growl at them for losing to two of the league's worst teams, nor did he scold the team for its complete lack of scoring. 

Tallon went with the soft approach. “It was Dale speaking from the heart,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. 

“I thought the timing was right,'' Tallon said on Sunday. “I wanted to let them know we all believed in them. I told them they are a good team and deserved the right to be successful. Have no regrets.''

Regardless of whether it was from Dineen giving them the day off on Saturday or Tallon's short pep talk, the Panthers looked energized on Sunday.

Playing a Detroit team that is still in the running for a top seed in the Western Conference (the shootout win put the Wings in fourth), Florida showed flaws in its game but little fear.

And had Juri Hudler's shot in the third period not deflected off Ed Jovanovski's skate and past goalie Scott Clemmensen, the Panthers may have skated out of Detroit with two points instead of just one. 

“We just have to keep scratching and clawing,'' Dineen said. “There were a lot of positives to come out here.''

Playoffice1Florida drew three penalties in the opening period but didn't do much with them, instead taking a 1-0 lead when Tomas Fleischmann's slap shot knuckled past Jimmy Howard (27 saves) with 2:22 left in the period. The Wings did tie it 5:30 into the third when Hudler flew a shot from the right side, the puck clipping Jovanovski and getting past Clemmensen. 

The Panthers backup goalie – 2-0-1 in his past three starts – also wasn't fooled by a slick move from Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk as he stood behind the net and flipped the puck up and over Clemmensen, trying to deflect it off Jonathan Ericsson's helmet.

Clemmensen ducked his head and the puck was covered up. 

“I was watching through the net, saw it coming the whole time,'' said Clemmensen, who had 31 saves. “Other players do it in practice but won't do it in a game because you don't want to look an idiot. Very rarely does Datsyuk look like an idiot in this league.''

PANTHERS PLAYOFFS?

Florida clinches first playoff berth since 1999-2000 with a win Tuesday against visiting Winnipeg. 

Panthers can also:

-- Clinch the Southeast Division with a win against Winnipeg and a Washington regulation loss on Monday in Tampa Bay;

-- Clinch a playoff berth with an overtime loss to Winnipeg AND a Buffalo regulation loss Tuesday at Toronto.

-- IF Panthers and Capitals win on Monday/Tuesday, Florida can claim division title Thursday in Washington with a regulation victory.

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