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Panthers end playoff drought

Jagr helps Florida qualify for postseason for first time since 2012

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

The combination of youth and experience has the Florida Panthers back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

The Panthers have 11 players on their roster who are 24 years old or younger, not surprising given they've picked early in the first round for most of the past few years. But they also have five key players who are 35 and older, and five more who are at least 30. The 30-somethings contribute on the ice, but they're just as important in the dressing room, where they're able to provide leadership and direction for their younger teammates.

The Panthers won 12 games in a row from Dec. 15-Jan. 10, the longest streak in their history, to climb to the top of the Atlantic Division and give them more than enough cushion to survive some ups and downs in February and March. They locked up a playoff berth when the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins on Sunday.

Here are five reasons the Panthers clinched:

1. The ageless one

Jaromir Jagr turned 44 in February, but he's putting up better scoring totals than players who weren't even born when he began his NHL career in 1990. With 26 goals and 62 points, Jagr is the oldest player in NHL history to reach those numbers. He's also plus-19, his best rating since he was plus-26 for the New York Rangers in 2006-07.

Video: BOS@FLA: Jagr collects assist to move past Howe

Jagr doesn't have the speed he had when he broke into the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his hockey knowledge is off the charts, and he knows how to use his size and his linemates to their best advantage. He plays with center Aleksander Barkov, 20, and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, 22, on the left. Jagr's experience combined with their youth and talent has made for a formidable line.

"I have good players around me," Jagr said after reaching 25 goals for the 18th time in his NHL career in a 5-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 26. "The young guys, even though they are young guys, have been leading the team the last few years. They have the experience."

The "young guys" still marvel at Jagr's skill and drive.

"Obviously, he's older but definitely still has the skills, still has the will to win," Huberdeau said. "When he came here, I didn't doubt him at all. There was no doubt he wasn't going to do anything but help our team."

2. Veteran leadership

Jagr isn't the only oldie-but-goodie who's contributed to the Panthers' return to the playoffs. Defenseman Brian Campbell, 36, leads Florida at more than 22 minutes per game, plays in all situations, and has served as a mentor to the young defensemen, especially Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick at the 2014 NHL Draft and 2015 Calder Trophy winner. Forward Shawn Thornton, a 38-year-old fourth-liner, is so highly thought of as a leader that the Panthers signed him for next season. 

Video: FLA@COL: Campbell goes top-shelf to trim deficit

Another defenseman, captain Willie Mitchell, has been out with a concussion but is still around when the Panthers are home and can provide the experience that comes with being a member of two Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Los Angeles Kings.

3. Solid goaltending

Roberto Luongo continues to be one of the NHL's most consistent goaltenders as he approaches his 37th birthday on April 4. Luongo is 33-19-6 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He reached 30 wins for the first time since 2011-12 and shows no signs of slowing down. Luongo has passed Hockey Hall of Fame members Grant Fuhr, Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito this season to move into seventh place on the NHL's all-time wins list for goaltenders.

The Panthers have gotten a lift from backup goaltender Al Montoya, who is 11-6-3 with a 2.09 GAA and .923 SV% in 23 appearances. Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he's willing to use Montoya in key situations in order to keep Luongo fresh.

4. Young legs

One key to the Panthers' success this season has been the improvement of several of their young players.

The most improved might be center Vincent Trocheck, who had 25 goals and 53 points, more than double his totals from last season, before breaking a bone in his foot when he blocked a shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 29. He'll miss the rest of the regular season, but the Panthers hope he'll be ready for the playoffs. 

Video: DET@FLA: Trocheck beats Howard from the right circle

"I think he's the biggest surprise of the season," Jagr said. "I'm really enjoying the way he's playing. It's not all about the goals. The coaches are giving him a lot of responsibility, and he is doing well with it."

Trocheck isn't the only young player who's taken a step forward. Reilly Smith, acquired from the Boston Bruins on July 1, has an NHL career-high 24 goals and plays in all situations. Barkov has 26 goals and 55 points in 62 games; Huberdeau's 19 goals are a NHL career-high, and his 56 points are two more than the high he set last season.

The Panthers have 218 goals, tied for eighth in the League, with four games remaining; they scored 198 all last season.  

5. Gallant's coaching

Gallant came to the Panthers before the 2014-15 season; before that, he hadn't been in charge of an NHL bench since the Columbus Blue Jackets fired him early in the 2006-07 season. They improved by 25 points in his first season in Florida (66 points in 2013-14 to 91 in '14-15) and have taken the next step this season.

General manager Dale Tallon, for one, is impressed. In January, he signed Gallant to a two-year contract extension through 2018-19.

"He has done an excellent job of creating a winning culture and developing our young players in his time with the Panthers," Tallon said. "He is an ideal fit for our group."

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