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Florida Panthers hope new goalie means strong start, playoff berth @NHL

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers hope a new face in the net and long-term commitments from younger talent will help end their long playoff drought.

Florida fell six points short of playoffs last season, finishing at 35-31-16. Since the Panthers' 1996 run to the Stanley Cup final, they've only won one playoff game, and they haven't reached the post-season since 2000.

The Panthers open their season Thursday against the New York Rangers with a new goalie - Tomas Vokoun - and new optimism.

"We feel we can be a playoff team right now - this season," said new centre Brett McLean, who signed a three-year deal in July. "And we want to start that way."

A quick start would be a pleasant change. Eight of Florida's first 11 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. In 2006, the Panthers sputtered early for the second consecutive season, losing 15 of their first 23 games and winning only three in November.

"It's key just to not force ourselves to have to do anything spectacular in the second half, like we've had to the last couple years," centre Stephen Weiss said. "If we can get off to a good start - I'm not saying we have to win 20 in a row, but definitely not lose nine or 10 in a row - we should be OK."

After relying on goaltenders Alex Auld and Ed Belfour last season, the Panthers acquired Vokoun from the Nashville Predators hours before the NHL draft. Auld struggled and Belfour was 41, so the move was welcome, Weiss said.

Vokoun was hindered by a hand injury last season and played in only 44 games. He went 27-12-4 and had a .920 save percentage.

"It's good to know that one guy's going to be in there the majority of the games," Weiss said. "And just seeing what he's done in the past, if he can bring that for us and we can be solid as a team defensively, who knows what can happen?"

The Panthers hope the change works out better than when they sent goalie Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks in June 2006 as part of a five-player trade. Luongo led Vancouver to the playoffs.

"I think everybody here knows we have good talent," Vokoun said. "We have some good players. It's up to us to play a good game and, obviously, be good as a team - not just individuals."

Coach and general manager Jacques Martin said "there seems to be an air of excitement with some of the moves in the summertime."

"The acquisition of Tomas Vokoun and then the signing of some of our core players to long-term deals - I think it's very positive," Martin said.

Florida signed defenceman Bryan Allen to a five-year contract, and winger Nathan Horton and Weiss agreed to six-year extensions. Those deal bring stability to the team, veteran centre and captain Olli Jokinen said.

"A lot of guys feel a lot more secure this year than years before," Jokinen said.

Martin praised players who focused on conditioning this off-season, saying it would help them in the tight games that have been a problem before. Martin and his players spent time at camps in Colorado and West Point developing chemistry.

"I don't think we were a team (last season)," said Martin. "We didn't play as a team. There wasn't that chemistry, that camaraderie, that really helped to be successful until mid-December."

The team will again be led by Jokinen, who had another strong offensive year last season. He played in every game and set career-highs in goals, assists and points.

But the Panthers' last trip to the playoffs occurred shortly before he arrived in South Florida seven years ago, and Jokinen is hungry for the post-season.

"We definitely have to get in the playoffs," Jokinen said.

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