RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The T-shirts for the Southeast Division champs were hanging in each player's locker when the Carolina Hurricanes skated off the ice. What has been a near certainty for weeks finally was official, yet any celebration will have to wait.
The Hurricanes aren't finished yet.
"It's an accomplishment and our guys should be proud of that," coach Peter Laviolette said. "They've worked hard to get to this point, but trust me. It's not the ultimate goal."
Craig Adams scored short-handed early in the third period to give Carolina a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Friday night that clinched the title.
With 102 points through 73 games, the Hurricanes moved within three points of Ottawa for the best record in the Eastern Conference by stopping Florida's seven-game winning streak. Carolina, headed to the postseason for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, leads Tampa Bay by 19 points in the division.
"It's nice that's it over with, I think it's kind of been a foregone conclusion for it seems like forever," Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour said. "We're not overly excited about it. It was just a matter of time. We've got bigger and better things we want to accomplish."
Adams got his ninth goal of the season with teammate Chad LaRose in the penalty box for hooking. Kevyn Adams lofted the puck out of the Carolina zone and Craig Adams outraced Chris Gratton to get to it. Goalie Roberto Luongo whiffed on his clearing attempt, allowing Adams to knock in the go-ahead goal.
"I actually thought I could get to the puck before Luongo," he said. "Once he got it, I just wanted to put some pressure on him, and I was lucky that he coughed it up to me."
Ray Whitney and Mark Recchi also had goals for the Hurricanes, and Martin Gerber had 21 saves. They finished 1-for-9 on the power play, with Florida's Steve Montador totaling three penalties and fellow defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski getting two.
"Against a team like Carolina, they're a fast team, and they move the puck quick," Gratton said. "If you don't keep your feet moving, you'll be forced into a lot of penalties."
Gratton and Mike Van Ryn scored for the Panthers, who remained eight points out of the playoffs. They trail the sixth-place tie of Tampa Bay, Montreal and New Jersey, with Atlanta also in the mix as the top eight teams qualify.
Florida center Jozef Stumpel missed the game with a hip injury suffered Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
"There's no time to think about this game," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said. "We've got to bounce back."
Van Ryn made it 2-2 midway through the second period during a 4-on-4, getting credit for the goal when defenseman Aaron Ward inadvertently deflected a pass into his own net. Van Ryn was looking for Kwiatkowski, but Ward sprawled to the ice to block it.
When he rolled over and swung at the puck, it slipped by Gerber.
"I was trying to force him to make that pass," Ward said. "It's just one of those flukey things, where I realized he hadn't shot it yet, and that sliding stick behind me has stopped a few pucks before. I think that might be the second one I've scored on my goalie in my career."
Gratton gave Florida the lead with his 17th goal of the season in the first period, and it held up despite three separate two-man advantages for Carolina that totaled more than 2 minutes. Finally, seconds after the third one ended, Whitney was able to score after Eric Staal won a faceoff from Serge Payer.
Whitney patiently skated in before beating Luongo over his right shoulder.
"The key on 5-on-3s is to make a goalie's life miserable, and guys were getting good chances in there," Kevyn Adams said. "Whit's goal was a big one, because the power play was starting to wind down. It gave us a big lift."
Recchi put the Hurricanes ahead with his second goal since coming to the team in a trade earlier this month, redirecting a shot from Frantisek Kaberle through Luongo to make it 2-1.
The Hurricanes had Bret Hedican back in the lineup hours after they activated fellow defenseman Andrew Hutchinson from injured reserve. Hutchinson (wrist surgery) didn't dress for the game and joined Doug Weight, Niclas Wallin, Andrew Ladd and Erik Cole as scratches.
General manager Jim Rutherford said before the game that he expected Wallin and Weight back next week.
"It's going to be great," Craig Adams said. "It'd really be nice to get a few games in before the playoffs, with all the guys back in the lineup. We want to be firing on all cylinders, so we can hit the ground running in the first game of the playoffs."
Notes: Hurricanes C Josef Vasicek plans to return Monday night after missing nearly five months following knee surgery in November. ... Near the end of the second period, Florida LW Gary Roberts played nearly an entire shift without his helmet. He lost it a scrum along the boards. ... Carolina improved to 13-0-1 when Whitney scores.
|Chris Gratton (17) ASST: Steve Montador (4), Jay Bouwmeester (36)|
1 - 0 FLA
|PPG - Ray Whitney (15) ASST: Cory Stillman (48), Eric Staal (50)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Mark Recchi (26) ASST: Frantisek Kaberle (35), Justin Williams (42)|
2 - 1 CAR
|Mike Van Ryn (6) ASST: NONE|
2 - 2 Tie
|SHG - Craig Adams (9) ASST: Kevyn Adams (7)|
3 - 2 CAR
|Power Play %||16.3%||18.8%|
|% on Road||15.9%||16.1%|
|% at Home||16.5%||21.6%|
|Mike Van Ryn Hooking against Kevyn Adams|
|Joel Kwiatkowski Holding against Ray Whitney|
|Rod Brind'Amour Hooking against Jamie Allison|
|Steve Montador Tripping against Cory Stillman|
|Joel Kwiatkowski Cross checking against Justin Williams|
|Jay Bouwmeester Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Bret Hedican Hooking against Olli Jokinen|
|Steve Montador Hooking against Craig Adams|
|Juraj Kolnik Hooking against Mike Commodore|
|Eric Staal Interference on goalkeeper against Roberto Luongo|
|Steve Montador Hooking against Mike Commodore|
|Olli Jokinen Interference on goalkeeper against Martin Gerber|
|Chad LaRose Hooking against Jay Bouwmeester|
|Chad LaRose Holding the stick against Jon Sim|
|Frantisek Kaberle Roughing against Jon Sim|