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SAYING GOODBYE: Florida Panthers Wrap Things Up After Late-night Loss to Devils

IMG_1135BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

It was just after midnight and Stephen Weiss sat in front of his locker speaking to one reporter after another, his gray dri-fit shirt soaked in sweat. 

The Panthers had just lost 3-2 in double overtime to the visiting Devils, a loss that abruptly ended Florida's season. After almost 84 minutes of hockey, the long season – one that started back in September – was done. 

Hockey players are all about routine, from morning practices to night games and afternoon naps. Mess with the routine and you mess with the mind.

The Panthers now have plenty of time on their hands. No more practice, no more games. There will be some sleep, however, at least right now. 

“What time is it?'' Weiss asked, looking around for a clock. It was 12:27 a.m. “I won't get much sleep tonight. I'll try and get it in.''

The Panthers return to their training facility in Coral Springs for the last time this season on Saturday morning. They'll collect extra sticks, pack up their bags and head home after having exit meetings with coach Kevin Dineen and general manager Dale Tallon. 

Some will need surgery to fix minor problems; some just need rest. Kris Versteeg, who battled a hip IMG_1124injury for much of the second half of the season, said after Thursday's game linemate Tomas Fleischmann played most of the Devils series with a broken hand. 

The bumps and bruises will heal with time. The Panthers have plenty of that to deal with now. The Panthers wish they were still playing but proud of the way they went out.

“We saw our true identity, what we call 'Panther hockey' there near the end,'' Dineen said. “There was a lot of pressure, a lot of passion. We fed off the crowd and it made for a very enthusiastic ending.''

Few will return to BankAtlantic Center, site of 49 games this season – counting four preseason and four postseason contests – save for a concert or two. They won't skate on their ice surface at the arena again IMG_1127until September when it all gets going once more.

Less than 10 hours after Thursday's game was complete, a small army of workers bludgeoned that ice to small bits. It was carted out via front-loaders in the afternoon and left to melt. 

The Panthers sure would have loved to use that ice a little longer. The second round of the playoffs was said to have started as early as Saturday afternoon. But after Adam Henrique's goal zipped between the legs of Jose Theodore 3:47 into the second overtime, it was the Devils moving on – and the Panthers moving out. 

New Jersey opens its Eastern Conference semifinal round against the Flyers on Sunday in Philadelphia.

“It's brutal losing in overtime. Top it off being Game IMG_11337 and ending things. There's not much more to say,'' Ed Jovanovski said. “This a tough pill to swallow.''

One thing the Panthers earned during the seven-game battle with the Devils was a little respect. The Panthers weren't expected to be in the playoffs – much less go into them as the third overall seed with a Southeast Division championship. Florida hadn't made the playoffs in 12 years before this one.

“It was worth the wait for sure,'' said Weiss, who has been with the Panthers since 2002. “It was so much fun to be a part of hockey like that. Every little play means so much. I really missed being a part of it over the years. It'll be a fun summer, getting ready to do this all over again. We set the bar. We have to go beyond this.''

The Panthers were written off for deal a few times during the series, including in the second period Thursday when Florida was held to two shots and went into the third down 2-0. The Panthers came out in the third period looking like a new team and came at Martin Brodeur with everything they had. 

Florida got goals from Weiss and Marcel Goc to tie the score, and had Scottie Upshall been able to connect on a juicy rebound in front of the net, the story would have ended differently. Instead, Henrique chased down a puck the Panthers failed to clear and scored for the second time that night. Well, the second goal of the game came on Friday morning.

“They have a lot of good veteran guys who have been through the trenches,'' Brodeur said afterward, the 16:13 on the small digital game clock in the spartan visitor locker room still burning bright above his IMG_1130head. 

“They were a good solid team that just hung around. They only had two shots in the second but survived it and stayed in the game. The way they stayed around shows their experience. They stayed in your face. You couldn't shake them off.''