Panthers clinch Southeast with 4-1 win

Wednesday, 08.06.2014 / 4:50 AM

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The crowd of 19,057 at the BankAtlantic Center started doing the wave about midway through the third period.

The celebration had just begun.

As the clock reached :00, it was time for the plastic rats to start raining from the stands as the Florida Panthers congregated at their net to congratulate one another. The message on the scoreboard -- "Southeast Division Champions" -- said it all.

Marcel Goc and John Madden scored 2:45 apart in the first period and the Panthers wrapped up the first division title in franchise history by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 on Saturday night.

"Pretty awesome," said center Stephen Weiss, who like his teammates in the Florida dressing room was wearing a championship cap and T-shirt. "It's a surreal feeling. It hasn't been easy all year, and it wasn't easy tonight. That team pushed hard, but we found a way to win -- and win the division, which is what we wanted."

The Panthers have seemed destined for the division title for a while, having led the Southeast for 128 days, including the last 43. But it took them three tries after their magic number was cut to two points following Washington's 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday.

None of the players cared that it went to the last day after Florida blew a 3-0 lead at home against Winnipeg on Tuesday before losing 4-2 at Washington two days later.

The Panthers again built a 3-0 lead at home against Carolina, but didn't let it slip this time.

"We don't care," said Weiss, who scored his 20th goal of the season. "It would have been nice to get it over with a little bit sooner, but we haven't done anything easy all year. It's kind of fitting it comes down to our last home game."

Mikael Samuelsson had an empty-net goal and two assists for the Panthers, who needed to get at least one point to win the Southeast after Washington beat the New York Rangers 4-1 earlier in the evening. Florida finished with 94 points, two more than the Capitals.

In snapping Washington's four-year run as Southeast Division champion, the Panthers earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Florida, back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000, will face sixth-seeded New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Devils were the Panthers' first-round opponents the last time they were in the playoffs, with New Jersey sweeping their conference quarterfinal series on the way to the Stanley Cup.

The last team to win the Southeast Division before the Capitals' run was Atlanta in 2006-07.

"Getting into the playoffs and taking care of your division, that's a big step," said defenseman Brian Campbell, a Stanley Cup winner with Chicago in 2010. "You want to win for guys that haven't been there before. It's a lot of fun and a big step for this organization that we desperately needed."

The Panthers, who clinched their playoff berth Thursday when Buffalo lost at Philadelphia, won for only the second time in 10 games (2-3-5) and snapped a five-game losing streak.

Scott Clemmensen got the start in net for Florida and made 33 saves. It was another strong performance by Clemmensen, who came in with a 2-0-1 record with a .959 save percentage in his previous three games. Clemmensen started in place of Jose Theodore, who was pulled for 91 seconds in Thursday's 4-2 loss at Washington after giving up the third goal.

"Most people might be surprised, but I'm not, to be quite honest with you," Madden said of Clemmensen's performance. "I remember when Marty [Brodeur] went down (with New Jersey in 2008-09) and he came in for three-quarters of the season and he won 30-something games for us. He was unbelievable back then. He still is and he's still playing well for a guy that doesn't see much action. When he comes in, he's real sharp."

Brian Boucher, appearing in only his 10th game of the season, stopped 22 shots for Carolina. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen scored the Hurricanes' goal.

Forward Jeremy Welsh made his NHL debut for Carolina two days after recording an assist for Union College in a 3-1 loss to Ferris State in the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa.

It wasn't a memorable debut for Welsh -- he was called for two penalties, including one on his first shift. Welsh was in the box on his second penalty, for interference, when Weiss scored at 10:06 of the second period to make it 3-0.

"Some unfortunate breaks, but it sucks when you're in the box, a new guy, letting your teammates down," Welsh said. "Not a great start, but the guys were OK about it and the coach put me right back out."

The Panthers beat Carolina for the fifth time this season while also snapping the Hurricanes' modest two-game winning streak.

"They were ready to go at the start," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "We needed a break, we didn't get it. We missed some opportunities and some empty nets that could have made a difference."

Goc opened the scoring at 4:02 of the first period after cleanly beating Eric Staal on the faceoff and sending the puck to Dmitry Kulikov at the right point. Kulikov's wrist shot was stopped in front of the net, but Goc picked up the loose puck and stepped around Boucher after the goalie went down to the ice before hitting a wide-open net.

Madden made it 2-0 at 6:43 on a nice back-and-forth passing play with Tomas Kopecky after defenseman Jamie McBain fell behind the Carolina net without being hit.

"That was a great play by Kopecky," Madden said. "I tried to wait for him to open up a little bit and threw it over to him and he kind of waited for the goalie to commit, sent a silly backhand right on my tape. Nice and crispy. Hopefully I don't miss too many of those."

McBain had barely missed giving Carolina a 1-0 lead when his wrist shot from the left circle bounced off the right post.

Weiss made it 3-0 when he put home a rebound after Boucher stopped Samuelsson's slap shot from the middle of the blue line.

Versteeg had the second assist on the goal, setting a new career high with his 54th point. He had 53 points for the Chicago Blackhawks in his first full season in 2008-09.

Pitkanen scored at 8:26 of the third period, two seconds into a Carolina power play. Staal turned the tables on Goc with a clean faceoff win and Pitkanen blasted a one-timer that beat Clemmensen to the glove side.

Clemmensen came up big the rest of the way, including stopping Staal on a one-timer from the top of the right circle with just over four minutes left. Samuelsson's empty-netter made it official.

"When that final goal goes in from Sammy, it feels pretty good," Versteeg said. "We put in a lot of effort this year and a lot of naysayers were against us from day one. It feels great to prove people wrong and go into the playoffs now with no one expecting us to do anything. That can be a dangerous team."
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