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Florida Panthers eye post-season after surprising January @NHL

SUNRISE, Fla. - Florida's Richard Zednik went airborne for his eighth goal of the season, leaping over a New Islanders defender sprawled out on the ice in yet another Panthers' victory.

"I think this is one of the nicest, probably the nicest goal, I've scored," Zednik said Friday. The acrobatic effort in Thursday's 3-2 win was symbolic of the Panthers' play in 2009.

Since Jan. 3, Florida has played confident, exciting hockey en route to a 9-2-3 record. After nearly a decade of playoff exile, the Panthers are competing for a post-season berth.

Heading into Saturday's game against Washington, Florida was eighth in the Eastern Conference with 58 points.

"They're not looking at the scoreboard and saying 'Oh well. We'll get them next time,"' Florida coach Pete DeBoer said of the Panthers. "They're going to battle right to the buzzer and try and claw our way back in it."

And they have. Florida trailed Toronto 3-1 heading into the third period of Tuesday night's game, but won 4-3 thanks to an overtime goal from Bryan McCabe. On. Jan. 10, the Panthers turned a 3-3, third-period tie with Atlanta into an 8-4 win. Florida rallied in the second period to beat in-state rival Tampa Bay on Jan. 17, and netted three goals in the final period of a 4-2 win over Carolina on Jan. 8.

"It's exciting," Panthers centre Stephen Weiss said. "It's been a long road to get to this point and to be this close so close to the end of the season, is a lot of fun. It's a lot more fun this way then in the past."

The Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1996 or a playoff game since 1997. They have occasionally flirted with post-season berths - including last season when the Panthers went 38-35-9 to finish nine points behind Southeast Division champion Washington - but have made a habit of watching the Stanley Cup race from afar instead of participating in it.

"This is a group that I thought was a little fragile early in the year," DeBoer said. "Probably due to the history and what's gone on here before. I think that as the season's going, I find them growing in confidence and growing more comfortable in tough situations. They're going out expecting to win now. And that's an important step."

Much of the credit for the recent turnaround goes to DeBoer, whom Florida plucked from the Ontario Hockey League in June. The Panthers also brought in NHL veteran Cory Stillman, who won one Stanley Cup title with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and another with Carolina two years later, and McCabe, a veteran defenceman. And the team picked up defencemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton in last year's draft-day trade for star Florida centre Olli Jokinen.

"We built something here," McCabe said. "It didn't happen overnight. We had a slow start to the year but there a lot of new faces, new coaching staff. But we're starting to build an identity that we're a hardworking team and we're going to compete every night. We're in a spot where we're right where we want to be."

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