CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Hockey's longest active playoff drought might finally be ending.
Not a moment too soon for the Florida Panthers, either.
If the Panthers beat Winnipeg at home on Tuesday night, Florida will be headed to the NHL post-season for the first time since 2000. Only six teams from the four major U.S. sports leagues are currently going longer than the Panthers without a post-season appearance—the NFL's Buffalo Bills, and baseball teams in Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City, Washington and Pittsburgh.
"I'd hope we think it's our destiny," Panthers forward Kris Versteeg said.
Florida holds a three-point lead over Washington in the Southeast Division race. The Panthers have three games left, Washington just two after a 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday night—a score that put Florida on the brink of not only a playoff spot, but also the first division crown in franchise history.
Buffalo is also contending for the No. 8 spot, but regardless of what the Sabres or Capitals do, a two-point night Tuesday would kick off a Florida post-season celebration.
A really, really, long-awaited celebration, that is.
"You know what? This community and our fans deserve this, and our players know it," Panthers President Michael Yormark said Monday. "I've been travelling with the team for the last week and they feel it, they know it. These fans have supported us for so long. We've got a core and this core stuck with us. And so the opportunity to clinch at home in front of hopefully a really good crowd ... would be thrilling."
There's some symmetry that may be at work on Tuesday as well.
Florida's second-leading scorer this season, Stephen Weiss was a teenager when the Panthers drafted him No. 4 overall in 2001. His 29th birthday is Tuesday, and only one active player—former Florida defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary—has been in more NHL regular-season games without skating on playoff ice.
"We won't look past Tuesday," Panthers first-year coach Kevin Dineen said Sunday after his team lost to Detroit in a shootout, an Achilles' heel for Florida this season. "I've been giving you the same schtick for a couple months now. But certainly, we're excited."
Some of the numbers are staggering.
Since the Panthers last played a playoff game, 563 names (some of them duplicate) have been etched on the Stanley Cup. More than 200 players have skated with Florida for at least one game. Brian Rafalski has been in 161 post-season contests, Martin Brodeur has won 61 playoff games, Patrick Marleau has 50 playoff goals. Versteeg got his name on the Cup twice in the same year; the first one was misspelled and scratched off, a rare correction on hockey's chalice.
"The ball's in our court," said Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell, who like Versteeg helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010. "Obviously for our division, it's in our hands. We have the opportunity. We're still looking at that. First you need to clinch a playoff spot and that's something that we're working on. So it'll be an exciting game Tuesday night against a division rival, a must-win game for us."
It's no coincidence that Campbell, Versteeg, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky are in Florida now after helping the Blackhawks end a 49-year drought without titles. Dale Tallon put together much of the core of that Chicago team when he was general manager there, and took over as Florida's GM about a month before the Blackhawks won their championship.
Tallon addressed the Panthers for about 90 seconds on Saturday, simply calming down an anxious bunch that had been stumbling of late.
"It's not something that he does a lot," Dineen said. "But I thought it was a very strong message he delivered. ... Dale speaking from his heart is what it was."
Buffalo hasn't been to the NFL playoffs since the wild-card round following the 1999 season. In baseball, Washington (then as Montreal) was in the post-season last in 1981, Kansas City in 1985, Pittsburgh in 1992, Toronto in 1993 and Baltimore in 1997.
If Florida gets out of that dubious club, its attention will turn toward snapping another drought.
The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since 1997. As early as next week, that might change as well.
"If we get in, and God willing we will get in, then it's a whole new chapter for us," Yormark said. "Then we can focus on what kind of run we can make in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But this season has been defined around getting into the post-season. And we can taste it. We can feel it. We can smell it. It's right in front of us. It's in our grasp and now we've just got to go out and take care of business."
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