The drought is over. The Florida Panthers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2000, ending the longest streak of playoff-less seasons in NHL history.
Florida became the seventh Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff berth on Thursday when Buffalo lost 2-1 at Philadelphia. They can win their first division title by getting a point against Carolina on Saturday.
How did the Panthers do it? We can think of at least six reasons, and they're listed below:
Left Wing - FLA
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 61
SOG: 214 | +/-: -7
1. Summer shopping spree: The Panthers got a massive makeover last summer when general manager Dale Tallon brought in 13 veteran newcomers either via free agency or trade. Florida had worked to put itself in position to rebuild its nucleus by dumping vets to add draft picks and create cap space. The plan worked to perfection, with guys like Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Ed Jovanovski and Jose Theodore all playing major roles in a stunning turnaround that saw the Panthers go from having the worst record in the Eastern Conference to making the playoffs.
2. Net gains: After the departure of Tomas Vokoun, goaltending was considered by some to be a major question mark for the Panthers. But Theodore and Scott Clemmensen instead turned it into a strength. Signed as a free agent after one season with the Minnesota Wild, Theodore gave the Panthers the solid starting goaltending they've enjoyed for years -- through all the playoff-less seasons. Clemmensen responded whenever called upon and came up with some clutch performances, the highlight being a 35-save effort in a 2-1 victory at Philadelphia on March 20.
3. Super Soupy: Of all the newcomers, the one who made the biggest impact was Campbell. Almost three years after he signed him to a controversial eight-year, $56 million deal in Chicago, Tallon brought Campbell -- and his contract -- to South Florida after the defenseman agreed to waive his no-trade clause. Campbell instantly gave Florida its best puck-moving defenseman in years -- maybe ever. He also helped improve the power play and logged major minutes playing in all key situations. Just as he had done in Chicago, Campbell rewarded Tallon's faith by earning a spot in the All-Star Game.
Defense - FLA
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 32
SOG: 165 | +/-: 5
4. Bombs away: For most of the first half of the season, the Panthers didn't get much scoring up front outside their top line of Stephen Weiss, Fleischmann and Versteeg. That's why the emergence of defenseman Jason Garrison as an offensive threat was so important. Thanks to his big shot from the point, Garrison broke the franchise record for goals by a defenseman previously held by Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan McCabe. Between Garrison's goal scoring and the passing of both Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov, the Panthers were able to get a lot of offensive help from their back end.
5. Coaching kudos: While Tallon deserves a lot of credit for assembling a playoff-caliber roster, it's impossible to ignore the work of first-year coach Kevin Dineen in helping mold the assembled parts into a cohesive group. Yes, a few of the newcomers -- Campbell, Kopecky and Versteeg -- had played together in Chicago, but that doesn't diminish Dineen's contributions. The Panthers also dealt with injuries throughout the season, with Scottie Upshall, Kulikov, Goc, Marco Sturm and Jovanovski all missing a good chunk of games, and Dineen never let his players feel sorry for themselves. His hiring proved another good move made by Tallon last summer.
6. Addition by addition: In recent years, the Panthers' roster moves after the start of the season usually involved trading away veterans. But this year, Tallon added some players and a couple of those became valuable contributors. After the team was shut out in back-to-back games in mid-October, Tallon traded slumping forward David Booth and his hefty salary to Vancouver in a trade that brought back veterans Mikael Samuelsson and Sturm. A pair of moves at the trade deadline brought in two more veterans -- Wojtek Wolski from the Rangers and Jerred Smithson from Nashville -- without sacrificing any players on the roster. Samuelsson came up with his share of big goals down the stretch, including a game-tying tally late in the third period of a 3-2 victory at Montreal on March 27 in which the only goal in the shootout was scored by Wolski.
We have no doubt how he can play. You don't, with four teams that are left, you're not getting here without good goaltending. All great goalies left, and [Bishop] is a top-tier goaltender in this league and he's shown it.
— Lightning coach Jon Cooper on goalie Ben Bishop, who shut out the Rangers in Game 5