SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers accomplished their primary goal of finally ending their long playoff drought just two nights ago, but there’s still a lot at stake in Saturday night in the regular season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Panthers need only one point to clinch the first division title in franchise history and secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which would mean a first-round matchup against the New Jersey Devils.
Florida also would clinch the Southeast Division if the Washington Capitals lose against the New York Rangers in a game that will start at 6:30 p.m., one hour before the opening faceoff of the Panthers- Hurricanes matchup.
So the Panthers could find out they’re division winners during the third period of their game, just like they found out they had clinched a playoff berth during the third period of their 4-2 loss at Washington Thursday with the scoreboard announcement that Buffalo had lost at Philadelphia.
The Panthers don’t really care that they have backed into the playoffs, losing their last five games and eight of their last nine, but they also would like to go into the playoffs on a winning note.
“Right now we’re focused on trying to give our fans and our players a good, strong feeling moving into the playoffs,” coach Kevin Dineen said after the morning skate. “A lot of work went into where we are right now, but now we have to take it to the next level and finish strong. That’s the first step. We look at tonight as a beginning of next week.”
If the Panthers lose in regulation against Carolina and Washington wins at Madison Square Garden, Florida would drop to the No. 8 seed and have to face the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
“The division title would be the main thing,” said center Stephen Weiss, who will be playing in his 637th career game Saturday but will be appearing in the postseason for the first time. “It’s accumulation of all the hard work throughout the season and it would be nice to finish it off. Our fans deserve it, I think we deserve it in here, now we’ve got to go out and get it. Home ice is important, too. It’d be nice to start here at home. Anytime you have the ability to play a seventh game at home, it’s huge.”
The Panthers have been on the verge of ending Washington’s four-year run as Southeast Division champion since the Capitals’ 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday put their magic number at two.
But Florida was unable to hang on to a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg at home Tuesday, losing 5-4 in overtime.
Dineen said that was the one game where his players showed some tightness. But Weiss said the pressure of finally ending the Panthers’ 10-season playoff drought has shown in the team’s play the last few games.
“When you look back on the last couple of weeks, I think it has been weighing on us,” Weiss said. “We wouldn’t say it is, but you just can tell with some of our play at spurts in games. We seemed to tighten up here and there. It’s a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone’s shoulders. It’s nice to know that we’re in no matter what and now we can relax and hopefully have a crisp game tonight.”
The Panthers last faced Carolina on March 21, and the Hurricanes’ 3-1 victory snapped their season-long five-game winning streak.
It also began the Panthers’ current 1-3-5 slide.
“You wind up the regular season you want to win the last game,” forward Tomas Kopecky said. “We put ourselves in a spot where the last couple of games we needed one point. Obviously everybody is looking at the standings right now and where we can be if we get the one point. It’s very important to us. In the playoffs, it’s very important to start at home. If you have that home-ice advantage, if you go to Game 7, you’ve got that home crowd behind you. That’s something we’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year.”
Scoring has been the biggest problem lately for the Panthers, who have tallied more than two goals in regulation only once in their last 11 games.
But the Panthers’ best efforts in recent weeks have come against playoff-bound teams, including a 2-1 shootout loss Sunday at Detroit and the Washington game Thursday.
“In spurts we’ve been really good,” Weiss said. “Our game in Detroit was really good, I liked our game in Washington even though we didn’t get the result we wanted. But we play that hard, that type of style, we’re going to be all right. We’ll get the results we want. We’ve just got to make sure we do it for 60 minutes of the hockey game.”
For defenseman Brian Campbell, one of five players on the Panthers roster to have played on a Stanley Cup-winning team, a victory Saturday won’t mean much once the playoffs start.
Winning the division and starting the playoffs at home, though, would be big.
“It never hurts to go on a good note, but I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of all things,” Campbell said. “Obviously, you want to be playing good, but the playoffs are the playoffs. You’re in and then anything can happen from there. We need to win to get home-ice, and that’s important in that aspect.
“Having home-ice advantage in the first round is huge. That’s the biggest key for us and I expect a big effort.”