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75 posts from April 2012

April 06, 2012

Stephen Weiss: Glad I Stuck it out with the Florida Panthers

Weiss3BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

With the Panthers finally making the playoffs after all this time, much has been made about Stephen Weiss' dedication to the franchise.
Few would have blamed Weiss had he asked out of South Florida when given the chance, but he decided to stick it out with the team that drafted him at the 2001 draft held in Sunrise. 

“It's been tough, a long 10 years. You wonder if you're doing the right thing,'' Weiss said.
“It was worth staying, trusting Dale [Tallon]. We have some young kids coming up who will be pretty special. I want to be a part of that. But it's been tough. You go home early in the summer and wonder if you're doing the right thing for yourself and your career.
"You want to be loyal by at the same time there's only so many years to play. And you want to be able to play for the Stanley Cup. I'm excited to get my first taste.''

Stephen spoke to the Kup and Goldie show (@KupAndGoldie) on Friday afternoon and spoke of the emotions running through him as it finally sunk in that he was going to the postseason.

Here are some excerpts of that conversation on WQAM-560:

When did the playoffs sink in: "When I was on the bus heading to the airport I got to speak to some people back home. They were pretty pumped. I'm just excited to get going.''

You and Goldie embraced? It's a big deal to make the playoffs. Have a 'this is cool' moment?: "Yeah, when Dale and Bill Torrey and everyone was waiting downstairs to congratulate us. I took a second to myself to reflect back ... When Dale came in, I was super confident in him, what he did in Chicago. From Day 1, I really liked and respected Dale and wanted to be here with him. You've seen what he's done.''

Low point over past 10 years?: "I think the low moment was last year around the trade deadline when we got rid of like seven veterans. It was a complete rebuild again. That was a tough moment But there have been a lot. But I never wanted to go anywhere else. At the same time, at the end of every season when it's still not working out, you wonder if you're doing the right thing. When I saw what Dale was doing this summer, bringing in all those guys -- I knew what kind of quality guys we had -- I was pumped.''

Does a win Saturday bring momentum?: "I hope so. We haven't played our best hockey down the stretch. The last couple of weeks, looking back, no doubt it was weighing on us. The pressure of the past 10 years and everyone wanting it so bad. We might have been squeezing the stick too much. We had it the other night against Winnipeg and it skated by us. That was tough. But we haven't done anything easy all year. It's a resilient group. We spoke before the road trip. You know what? We know we don't have any super stars. We have a lot of third and fourth line type guys who work hard. If we play to that identity, we're going to be fine.''

When did you realize you were in the playoffs?: "I was on the bench and it was during the TV timeout when Washington does the 'Unleash the Fury' toward the end of the game. That was going on and it was pretty cool. The place was pumped. Then all of a sudden it got even more loud. And I didn't realize why.

"Then Sean Bergenheim tapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward the scoreboard. They had a huge 'Philly 2, Buffalo 1 final' on the scoreboard. And I looked at Bergie and he said 'We're in.'

"I just put my hands on my head and, we're still down in the game and there are a few minutes left, but there were a lot of emotions going on.'' 

 

UPDATED: Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Headed South? Florida Panthers Could Land Nick Bjugstad After Gophers Loss

Bjugstad

BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Minnesota sophomore Nick Bjugstad will be offered a three-year entry level contract by the Panthers.

Bjugstad, a past Minnesota prep Mr. Hockey winner, is expected to forgo his final two seasons with the Gophers and sign with Florida.

Panthers assistant general manager Mike Santos said no contract has been offered -- and won't be until Bjugstad comes to the Panthers. Which he hasn't. Santos said "we're not going to put any pressure on him.''

Florida drafted the 6-4 center with the 19th pick of the first round in 2010.

The Gophers were beaten 6-1 by Boston College in a Frozen Four semifinal Thursday in Tampa.

“He has to come to us and that hasn't happened yet,'' Santos said. "He's an NCAA player and we're not going to do anything to jeopardize his eligibility. We can't offer him a contract until he comes to me. He hasn't contacted us. College players don't have agents, they have advisers. He would contact me. And then we would open negotiations.

"He's a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota. He made a commitment to them. We're not going to jeopardize that. The decision is up to him and his family. I think he's a tremendous player. But we're not going to mess with what our college players have going. Drew Shore came to us, we negotiated a deal.''

If he does sign, he would be available to the Rampage for its final games and potential postseason on an amatuer try out. Bjugstad would be able to partake in all Panthers offseason workouts and an invite to training camp.

If Bjugstad decides to stay at Minnesota, he can only participate in the summer camp in Florida per NCAA rules. 

Here's a quick story I wrote on Bjugstad when the Panthers made him the 19th overall pick in Los Angeles that crazy day in 2010.

And here's OnFrozenFilm of Bjugstad from the Panthers rookie camp this past summer in Coral Springs:

 

Florida Panthers: Saturday Last Chance for Elusive Division Championship ... Carolina Canes Want to Spoil the Party

BACbannersBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

WASHINGTON – It's been a long time since the Panthers raised a banner to commemorate an on-ice achievement. In fact, the last time they did it, they did so in their old arena near downtown Miami.

On Saturday night, the Panthers can add to their meager collection by winning their first division title in franchise history.

A win over Carolina in the regular season finale is the cleanest way to do it. If Washington were to lose to the host Rangers, that brings the title as well.

Even though the Panthers have already clinched their first playoff berth since 2000, the team wants to finish strong. After all, Florida doesn't want to go into the postseason riding this current wave of anti-momentum.

The Panthers go into Saturday with five straight losses and eight losses in the past nine games. Of those nine games, however, Florida has secured at least a point in all but three.

The division championship brings the third spot and a first-round meeting (with home ice advantage) against New Jersey. If Washington wins it, the Panthers drop to eighth and have to play the top-seeded Rangers with the series starting in New York.

PanthersSClogo“We have to take care of Saturday, bring what we brought [Thursday],'' Brian Campbell said after Florida's 4-2 loss to the Capitals on Thursday. Philadelphia's 2-1 win over Buffalo secured a playoff spot for both the Panthers and Washington.

“We have picked up points by going to overtime almost every night. It doesn't matter how you get in. We got in the back door last year with Chicago and almost had that first round series against the top seed [Vancouver]. We need to bring our playoff game on Saturday.''

Florida has a few banners hanging from the BankAtlantic Center rafters, but only two commemorate on-ice accomplishments.

The first came in 1994 when the Panthers became the most successful expansion team in NHL history. MiamiarenafinalsThe second – and last – was raised at Miami Arena for the 1996 Eastern Conference champions.

Two banners are for events hosted in Sunrise (the 2001 draft and 2003 All-Star Game) and another honors team founder and current alternate governor Bill Torrey. That was raised last season.

Cliff Viner, the team's owner, flew to Washington Thursday and hoped to see his team claim the division title against the Capitals. As long as it happens Saturday, Viner will be happy.

“I want that title on Saturday and I want it badly,'' Viner said. “I think we deserve it and I think we're going to get it.''

Said Dmitry Kulikov: “The season isn't over yet. We have one more game to win. We want to win the division. It's a big home game for us and we'll go from there.''

() It will be interesting to see whom coach Kevin Dineen starts against Carolina. Dineen reiterated that Jose Theodore is Florida's starting goalie, yet he wasn't happy with Theodore's past two performances. Florida could have clinched the division with a win Tuesday against Winnipeg yet coughed up a 3-0 lead and lost 5-4 in overtime.

On Thursday, Dineen pulled Theodore after Washington jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second. Theodore took a break on the bench before returning less than two minutes later.

“He's not getting off the hook,'' Dineen said. “He's been my go-to guy and he needs to get it done. He has to make sure his game is in order. He's been around a while and we have a strong relationship. He knows my expectations.''

SATURDAY: HURRICANES AT PANTHERS

DinnencanesWhen, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: No local TV (Center Ice only)/WQAM-560

The series: Carolina leads 49-38-11

The game: Florida took the first four games in the season series before being knocked off 3-1 on March 21. That loss snapped a five-game winning streak and was the start of the Panthers recent slide which has seen them lose eight of nine and five straight (1-3-5). Florida's 11 wins against divisional foes is only higher than Carolina's eight. 

 

April 05, 2012

#FlaPanthers Backed Into Playoffs You Say? They Don't Care. Cats 4-2 Loss to #Caps = Postseason

SClogoBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

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 Scplayoffsgrab12 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.

 

OnFrozenFilm Playoff Edition: #FlaPanthers Stephen Weiss Finally Makes It

#FlaPanthers Back in the Playoffs for First Time in a Very Long Time

PlayofftixBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

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.



Florida Panthers On Cusp of Playoffs (Again) ... Go Against Caps Tonight

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Is tonight the night the Panthers clinch a playoff spot? All Florida needs is one point to win the Southeast Division.

If Buffalo was to lose in Philadelphia tonight, the Panthers get at least the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and a date with the Rangers. 

Jose Theodore in net versus the Capitals. Kickoff at 7.

 

April 04, 2012

South Florida Ties to Frozen Four: Union D Shayne Gostisbehere Grew up a #FlaPanthers Fan

FrozenfourBY ERIK ERLENDSSON, Tampa Tribune (Special to On Frozen Pond)

TWITTER: @erlendssontrib

TAMPA -- Growing up outside of Sunrise, Union freshman D Shayne Gostisbehere attended Florida Panthers games on a regular basis as his grandparents held season tickets since the inaugural season in 1993-94.

Now the 19-year-old who grew up in Margate idolizing Pavel Bure is playing the biggest game of his hockey career on Florida soil as a regular blue liner for the East Coast Athletic Conference champions appearing in their first Frozen Four.

“Not a lot of people play hockey down here, not a lot Shayneof college hockey at least, so it’s definitely awesome,’’ Gostisbehere said.

Gostisbehere picked up hockey at the age of five after going to the rink so much with his sister, who was a figure skater.

By the time he was a teenager playing travel hockey, he was recruited to play prep school hockey in Connecticut after playing in a tournament in Boston before eventually landing at Union this season.

“My coach sat me down (in high school) and told me that I had a chance to play somewhere else,’’ Gostisbehere said. “I definitely took the game more serious and it’s turned out great.’’

April 03, 2012

Florida Panthers Don't Get Storybook Night -- As Usual ... Cats 5-4 OT Loss to Jets Sets Up Huge Tilt in D.C. v Caps ... FLA gives up 3-0 Lead in Loss to Jets

FlatBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond

Stephen Weiss should have been in the Panthers locker room after Tuesday's game celebrating not only his birthday, but his team's first trip to the postseason in over a decade. 

Instead of wearing a new division championship hat and t-shirt, Weiss slumped in his locker stall in full uniform long after most of his teammates had stripped down and left. 

Florida's 5-4 overtime loss to visiting Winnipeg brought the Panthers one point closer to that elusive playoff spot. It just feels so much further away.

“We haven't made things easy for ourselves all year,'' said Weiss, who broke into the league with the Panthers 10 years ago on Tuesday as a 19-year-old and hoped to hit the playoff milestone on his 29th birthday. 

“We're following that trend and it sets up for a good one in Washington. We couldn't have asked for a better start but we need to be mentally sharp and keep it up. We let them back into the game. They had nothing to lose, they played loose.''

The Panthers, who haven't been to the playoffs an NHL record 10 straight seasons, can clinch their first Southeast Division championship in franchise history with one point in its final two games.

Florida holds a four-point lead on Washington in the division and now visits the Capitals with much on the line for both teams.

It shouldn't have come to this.

The Panthers led the summer-bound Jets 3-0 past the midway point of the second period only to see Winnipeg score four unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead. Florida finally stopped the bleeding with 3:53 left when Tomas Kopecky scored and ended up going to overtime. 

Andrew Ladd, one of the Jets who moved north when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated, scored with 1:48 left in overtime to force the Panthers celebration to another night. Well, at least the Panthers hope that's how it works out. 

The hats and t-shirts will meet the Panthers in Washington. It remains to be seen whether they are needed or not.

“It's hard to express the disappointment,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “There is a little shock by all of us, a little surprise that the game got away from us and we didn't play that way for 60 minutes. We had a great home crowd and we fed off that enthusiasm early.''

The Panthers, who have now lost seven of eight games, looked loose yet focused before Tuesday's game. Getting a point in a hard-fought shootout loss Sunday to Detroit appeared to have done wonders to the team's psyche as they came out Tuesday filled with speed and energy. 

With what was at stake and with what the Panthers organization has been through the past decade, there's little argument Tuesday was the biggest game since the franchise moved north from Miami back in 1998. The Panthers didn't disappoint at the start as Marco Sturm knocked in a loose puck 12:03 in for a 1-0 lead.

Florida made it 2-0 before the opening break when Kris Versteeg deflected a shot from Tomas Fleischmann that was Versteeg's first goal in 16 games. 

Fleischmann's wicked shot from the right circle 25 seconds into the second gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead – and it looked as if the playoffs were calling.Only, as Weiss said, nothing comes easy for the Panthers.

Evander Kane scored first with 6:45 left in the second before Zach Bogosian walked in on Jose Theodore four minutes later. 

The Jets tied it 53 seconds into the third before taking the first lead at 3:45 of the period on Bryan Little's goal. Florida desperately tied to try it but didn't do so until Kopecky flew up a hard-angle shot from just outside the goal line with 3:53 left.

Fleischmann almost won it in regulation when he picked off a puck deep in the Florida zone and raced up the ice on a breakaway. Ondrej Pavelec stopped it and the Panthers went into overtime. 

Florida outshot the Jets 4-2 in the overtime, but the final shot did the damage. With Buffalo rallying to beat Toronto in overtime, the Panthers hope of simply clinching a playoff spot was also put on ice. That will also have to wait.

“We came out strong and kind of let them back in the game. We needed to stomp on their throats,'' Ed Jovanovski said. “We have to do it the hard way now. It's on us. The opportunity was there to wrap things up. We'll go into Washington and see what happens.''

() Dineen said he thought about replacing Theodore after the fourth goal scored yet decided against it. 

“He's been our go-to guy all year,'' Dineen said of Theodore. “A goaltender, when you have a hiccup, wants to be the guy to stand tall.''

() Mike Santorelli, Krys Barch, Jarred Smithson and Keaton Ellerby were Florida's healthy scratches on Thursday as the Panthers ended up winning three of six against the Jets this season. 

 

Panthers-Jets Twitter Feed ... Check it Out!

Here's the Debut of the Panthers Long-Awaited NHL Playoffs Commercial ... NHL to Unveil on Wednesday

ScplayoffsgrabWell, the Panthers haven't yet clinched a postseason spot, but they are closer than they've been in a long, long time.

As we know, a win tonight cements Florida's postseason hopes. An NHL record 10 seasons and 11 years without is gone. 

So here's the NHL's commercial commemorating the Panthers finally making it back into the Big Dance. Thanks to the NHL for the sneak peek.

Enjoy.

 

 

OnFrozenFilm: Ed Jovanovski Talks Panthers Playoffs

Jovo4Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski speaks about Florida's run to the postseason:

OnFrozenFilm: Birthday Boy Stephen Weiss Talks Panthers and Playoffs

Weiss9

Stephen Weiss made his NHL debut 10 years ago on his 19th birthday.

On Tuesday, Weiss can help the Panthers win their first playoff berth since 2000 and first division title in franchise history on his 29th.

April 02, 2012

Surprise, Surprise: Florida Panthers Being Carried by their Goalies ... Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen Standing Tall for Cats

TheocelebrateBy CHRISTINA De NICOLA Special to On Frozen Pond

If the Panthers hope to party like it’s the 1999-2000 season -- the last time they reached the playoffs -- they’ll continue to ride their goaltending duo.

Starter Jose Theodore (22-5-10) holds a 2.38 goals-against-average with a .920 save percentage in 49 games. Backup Scott Clemmensen (13-6-6) made 31 saves in Sunday’s shootout loss to Detroit, but moved to 2-0-1 in his last three games with a .959 save percentage.

Over the past few weeks, Clemmensen started two other games, winning in both Philadelphia and Montreal. 

“Our goaltending’s just been really reliable, it’s been solid, it’s been a difference maker,” coach Kevin Dineen said.

“They are two guys that really mesh well together. There’s chemistry between them. I think Clem understands that he’s not always getting the start two, three times a week.

“And I haven’t given him easy games. He’s really done a fabulous job for us. That is not an easy thing to do. And I think that helps keep Jose sharp as well. So it’s really been a good balance for us this year.” 

Following Sunday’s game against the Red Wings, Clemmensen said that now is the time of the year to be playing one’s best hockey. 

“The whole team’s into it, such a fun time to be playing right now,” Clemmensen said. “Everyone’s expecting to make the playoffs, you want to be there and contributing as opposed to years past when we were out of it and playing for pride or yourself. It’s always fun to be a part of what’s going on right now in South Florida and the team.”

And through it all, the pair has had to be at top form of late. Over the past seven games, the Panthers have scored just 10 goals. 

Despite this span, Florida earned at least one point for the 11th time in its last 13 games (6-2-5) in Sunday’s shootout loss to Detroit, allowing two (non-shootout) goals or less in all but three of those contests.

“It’s been huge for us all year,” defenseman Ed Jovanovski said of the goaltending. “I said it in Montreal, I think Jose has been our MVP this year, and when Clemmy has the opportunity to come in, Clemm3he’s played great for us. We’re going to need them on most nights to be our best players, and on most nights they have.”

Added forward Stephen Weiss after Sunday’s game: “We’ve definitely got to score. Our goalies are too good and playing too well for us not to be scoring some goals. We’re going to win a lot more games.”

Florida (37-25-17) hosts Winnipeg Tuesday night and a victory would clinch a spot in the postseason for the first time in 10 years, which is an NHL record. If that happens and Washington loses to Tampa Bay on Monday, the Panthers would also have their first division title in franchise history. 

On the season, Florida has been in first place for 122 days, including 37 straight.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the latest the Panthers have ever been in first place in their division, previously sitting in the top spot through 68 games on March 10, 2000.

Going into Monday, the Panthers hold a three-point lead over Washington in the Southeast Division with three games left.

Florida visits Washington on Thursday and doesn't own a tiebreaker against the Capitals. 

“It’s always a big responsibility as a goalie, and the last month has been really important for everybody to really play their best hockey because if you look at the standings, it was really close and we were able to get some big points,” Theodore said. 

“At this time of year, every save is big. You’re not going to win games 6-0 or 6-1, and right now every save could be early in the first period or the third, but every save is big because it’s going to be those 1-1, 2-1 games. As a goalie you have to make sure you make those key saves at the right time to give your team a chance to win, and that’s what we’ve been doing lately showing character and getting points.”

Last year as a member of the Minnesota Wild, Theodore said he and his teammates were out of contention with 10 to 15 games left in the season.

But GM Dale Tallon brought in new guys such as Theodore and Jovanovski over the offseason. Still, many didn’t forecast the Panthers to be in the position they find themselves in.

“We were and are on a mission since day one, and we’ve got one big week ahead of us,” Theodore said.

“You play the game to be in the playoffs, and this year was a good chance for a lot of players and me too to be part of something. Be a leader on this team, and a lot of guys stepped up. We didn’t clinch anything yet, we’re on the right track, obviously, and it feels good to be part of something.” 

TUESDAY: JETS AT PANTHERS

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: FS Florida/WQAM-560

JetsThe series (Jets/Thrashers): Winnipeg leads 37-31-5

The game: Florida has won three of the first five games in the season series and would clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Jets. Winnipeg had briefly led the division earlier this year but couldn't sustain it and have been eliminated from postseason consideration. The Jets have currently lost four of five.

April 01, 2012

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.