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Panthers have higher hopes for 2016 playoff run

Florida players remaining from 2012 postseason view current team as superior

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012 with almost an entirely different roster. 

They'll play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders at BB&T Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, FS-F, MSG+).

Remaining from the team of four years ago are defensemen Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, and they saw the Panthers employ two vastly different methods to reach the playoffs.

The 2012 team, which ended a 10-season streak of playoff misses, featured a number of veterans acquired the previous summer. The 2016 version came together after years of stockpiling talented young players through smart drafting and development.

When the Panthers opened the 2012 playoffs, 13 of the 19 players who appeared in Game 1 against the New Jersey Devils were first-year members of the team or had arrived during the season.

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The projected lineup for Game 1 against the Islanders on Thursday features four players who were not part of the organization last season: Forwards Jiri Hudler, Teddy Purcell and Reilly Smith, and defenseman Jakub Kindl.

Gudbranson thinks the 2016 Panthers not only are younger but better than their 2012 counterparts.

"There's a different confidence that we have," Gudbranson said. "Obviously we wanted to break the streak of not making the playoffs back then, and we did. We felt like it was a successful season, a good step in the right direction.

"I think this year guys want to win it all. It's that simple. We want to go to the end. That's the biggest thing. That's the biggest focus. Obviously you've got to take it game by game, shift by shift, but there's a different confidence level on this team."

The 2012 Panthers lost Game 7 of the first round in double-overtime against the Devils, who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

The 2016 Panthers set team records with 47 victories and 103 points, nine more than they had in 2011-12.

Video: Florida Panthers 2015-16 season recap

"We caught lightning in a bottle [in 2012]," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "It was a team that was patched together in a hurry with the thought of having some success in that time and then add pieces to that. As it turned out, we were able to get some good picks because there were some failures after that and these are the guys that we're now seeing. And this team, the core, is more for the long-term benefit of the organization."

The playoff appearance this season was less surprising than that of 2012, which came one season after the Panthers finished last in the Eastern Conference with 72 points. The 2015 Panthers had 91 points, seven points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

"I think overall this is a better team," Gudbranson said. "I really do. We had a great team back then. But we can come at you in waves with this group. I think we're really solid defensively. Our goaltending is phenomenal. Obviously on the attack we're really dangerous when we're playing the right way. I think we're just generally a better team. There's a lot of character in this room. We've always talked about that. This year there's a lot of character here. That's going to have to come out in the playoffs."

Campbell was one of those veteran newcomers in 2012, arriving in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Like Gudbranson, he's not satisfied with just being in the playoffs.

"I just hope [winning the Stanley Cup] is something we can accomplish this year," he said. "It's having that attitude and knowing that … don't be happy just to be here. There's something that we can really accomplish as a group and put a big stamp on what this team is really made of."

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