By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Dale Tallon had made so many moves to breathe life into the Florida Panthers. Now he needed to make one more.
The team he had torn down and rebuilt in two years, the team that had risen from last to first, was in danger of letting its banner season slip away. The players were struggling down the stretch. They were tense. They were tired.
So Tallon did something rare for a general manager. While coach Kevin Dineen gave the players Saturday off to recharge on the road, Tallon tried to add an extra jolt of energy. He didn't speak to the team for long, only about a minute-and-a-half, but Dineen said he spoke from the heart. He told the players he was proud of them. He told them he believed in them. He told them to keep battling.
"That's not my job," Tallon said later. "But I just … I felt a little push … Maybe they needed to hear a different voice, for a second. It was just a gut feeling I had."
This is gut-check time.
Beat the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, and the Panthers can clinch their first playoff berth since 2000, ending the longest playoff drought in the NHL. They can clinch the first division title in their 18-season history. And they can do it at home.
"You can feel it," said goaltender Scott Clemmensen. "You can feel the playoffs."
But lose to the Jets, and they can blow it all – the division, the playoffs, everything.
They have two games remaining after the Jets. They could have as little as a three-point lead over the Southeast Division rival Washington Capitals entering a stick-squeezer Thursday night in D.C. They could have as little as a three-point lead over the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres. If things break the wrong way, it could come down to Saturday's season finales.
The odds are with them, but the tiebreakers aren't. Best not to take a chance. Best not to think about the negative. Best not to look at the standings at all.
"I try not to," said center Stephen Weiss, "but it's too hard."
Weiss has been waiting too long to get to this point. He hadn't even been drafted yet the last time the Panthers made the playoffs. He went fourth overall in 2001.
Ten years ago Tuesday, Weiss made his NHL debut and scored his first NHL goal on his 19th birthday. Now, on his 29th birthday, he has played more games for the Panthers than any other player – 634 games, 634 long games – and he finally has the chance to make the playoffs and win the division for the first time.
"It's exciting," Weiss said. "To play meaningful games this time of year – and to do it as quickly as we did it this year, with all the turnover from last year – is awesome. It's a fun group to be a part of. Guys are playing for each other, and we've got … to make it all worthwhile."
Weiss was one of the few players left after the trade deadline last season. Tallon gutted the roster, and the Panthers finished last in the East. Tallon cleared so much salary-cap space that the team became known as the "Floor"-ida Panthers because they was so far below the $48.3-million salary floor, let alone the $64.3-million salary cap.
Tallon made a flurry of trades and free-agent signings, adding a number of big contracts, many of them too big based on the players' production. The Panthers held a news conference to introduce nine new guys at one time. No one knew how these disparate parts would fit together, especially under a rookie NHL coach like Dineen.
The team came together and started winning, and Tallon made more moves. Despite losing 334 man-games to injury, the Panthers have spent 123 days atop the Southeast – including the last 38 days straight. They had never been in first place this late in a season since March 10, 2000.
"You just never know when you start from scratch and you've got 15 new players, but these guys, God bless them, they've really bonded well and have played hard and have given us their all," Tallon said. "They deserve any success they get. This is a good group, a really good group, and a good team. We've just got to finish it off."
Ah, but that's the hard part.
Since a five-game winning streak – one that included a victory over the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins, and was capped with an impressive road victory over the Philadelphia Flyers – the Panthers have stalled.
They have gone 1-2-4, even though they have played five non-playoff teams and a sputtering Detroit Red Wings team. They have scored only 11 goals over that seven-game stretch.
Their struggles are summed up by Kris Versteeg, who has had a breakout season but hasn't scored since Feb. 12. He missed nine games with a lower-body injury, and though he is starting to look more like his old self nine games into his return, he is clearly playing through pain.
"You don't want to make excuses, but you just try to go out there and give everything you can every night no matter if you're 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 percent," Versteeg said. "Just go out there and play as hard as you can."
The situation would be worse if not for overtime and shootout losses – the Panthers have racked up 17 "loser" points this season, leading the league – not to mention the struggles of the Capitals and Sabres. Both have blown opportunities to close the gap in recent days.
Even if the Panthers secure the third seed in the East, even though they have several veterans and former Cup champions, they will enter the playoffs as underdogs. They will have fewer points than the sixth seed. They will have gotten where they are only because they play in a weak division.
"Obviously you hear that quite a bit," said Versteeg with a smile. "People are going to say what they want. Who knows? Whatever. Sometimes stuff happens."
But before the Panthers can play with a chip on their shoulders, they have to make sure stuff doesn't happen to them.
After a 2-1 shootout loss Sunday in Detroit, Tallon visited the dressing room. He checked on the guys. He gave one of them a fist-bump. He stayed upbeat about the long term and the short term.
"We know where we're heading," Tallon said. "The project is on pace – ahead of schedule probably – but we're in good position. We've got to finish strong."