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Florida Panthers, South Florida Ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs

CupcrazyBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

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A small group gathered at the BankAtlantic Center on Saturday morning while countless others sat in front of computers at home to do something not seen in these parts for some time.

Stanley Cup playoff tickets officially went on sale Saturday morning. For the first time in over a decade, South Florida is invited to the party.

“This is, by far, the best time of the season,'' said Sean Bergenheim, a playoff hero for the Lightning last season with nine postseason goals. 

“This is when the fun begins. Not that the regular season isn't fun, but this has a little extra. We're hoping to do something here that hasn't been done in a long time. I'm really excited. We all are. You get one or two wins and everything snowballs. That's what happened for us in Tampa last year.''

By virtue of Philadelphia's 2-1 victory over Buffalo on Thursday, the Panthers clinched a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2000.

The Panthers run of 11 years and 10 seasons (2004-05 2000was wiped out because of a labor lockout) between appearances is an NHL record that may not be conquered. Toronto holds the current drought as the Maple Leafs are in their seventh straight postseason-free April. 

“I have no idea what it will be like to be honest with you,'' said Stephen Weiss, a Toronto native who will make his postseason debut with the Panthers after 637 NHL regular season games. 

“I hope it will be like other buildings that you see on TV: Pandemonium, 20,000 people standing and waving towels the whole game. I'm looking forward to it. I hope the fans do as well. I just want to get it going; stop talking about it.''

The Panthers may not be going into the playoffs playing their best hockey of the year. Florida had lost eight of nine and five straight coming into Saturday's regular season finale. But the playoffs are a new season. Everything a team has going for it needs to be forgotten as it doesn't matter what you did in the regular season. Same with a team on a negative run. 

Everything, in the playoffs, starts fresh. It's spring cleaning for hockey teams.

“I guess the word ‘amped up’ is something you would use,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “The  level of intensity gets amped up, the level of importance at every faceoff, every finished check. Those are things you talk to your players about, but it’s not really needed because they recognize it and they know there’s a lot of other teams sitting at home that would  love to be a part of where you are right now. 

“You want to continue that feeling. It can last for a week or it can last for almost three months.''

The Panthers transformation from being the worst team in the Eastern Conference to one of its playoff teams started last February. Convinced the Panthers were not a playoff team, general manager Dale DineenTallon systematically began dumping veteran salaries via trades at the deadline. 

Tallon traded captain Bryan McCabe to the Rangers, Cory Stillman and Bryan Allen to the Hurricanes, Radek Dvorak to Atlanta and Dennis Wideman to the Capitals. Although the Panthers looked like a minor league team with some big names still around (Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun, David Booth, etc.), the short-term pain was for long-term results. 

“That was one of the low points of my time here,'' Weiss said. 

Tallon had about $18 million committed to salaries when he went to the June draft and needed to get the payroll up to about $40 million to hit the salary cap floor. Tallon, with all that money in his pocket, remade the roster in a hurry. The first move was getting defensemen Brian Campbell from Chicago in a trade. 

Once Campbell waived his no-trade clause, other players around the league noticed. Finally, free agents were taking the Panthers seriously. One by one, players headed south. 

On opening day, the Panthers had 14 different players suited up than they did the previous year. PantherplayoffDineen, hired to replace the fired Pete DeBoer, did a nice job putting all the new pieces together.

“We had some pretty sketchy preseason games but we're all pros and coming together as quick as possible was one of our goals,'' said Ed Jovanovski, who started his career in Florida in 1994 and returned by signing a four-year deal on July 1. “We all played hard for each other and things just fell into place.''

Dineen now goes into the playoffs with plenty of experience at his call. Of Florida's 23 roster players all but Weiss and six others have previous playoff experience. Kris Versteeg, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky, Campbell and John Madden all have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup. 

“We're not green,'' Dineen said, “by any means.''

Jovanovski, for instance, is no stranger to the Versteeg2postseason and is a link to the Panthers playoff past.

Of Florida's 31 postseason games in franchise history, Jovanovski has played in 27 of them. Twenty-two of those games came in Florida's fabled run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 while Jovanovski was a fresh-faced rookie. 

Although 'JovoCop' has some more miles on the odometer, talk of making a deep run into the playoffs brings a childish grin to his face. 

“Everyone said we didn't have a chance early on and we were pretty motivated,'' he said. “This is the best Theocelebratetime of the year, what we all play for. This is the big stage. We have some guys who have never been here, but a lot who have. It's going to be fun. The building is going to rock.''