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Playoffs, division title within Panthers' grasp Tuesday

by Alain Poupart /
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers are doing their best to remain focused, but they're also well aware what's at stake Tuesday night.

With a victory over the Winnipeg Jets at the BankAtlantic Center, the Panthers not only will secure the organization's first playoff berth since 2000, they also will clinch the first division title in franchise history.

"We're excited as a group," veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "We've worked all year for games like this. We obviously know the importance of it, what it means to this group of guys, this franchise."

The Panthers can extend their lead over Washington in the Southeast Division to five points with a victory Tuesday, and the Capitals have only two games left -- including one Thursday at home against Florida.

When they picked up a point in a 2-1 shootout loss at Detroit on Sunday, the Panthers already knew they could clinch a playoff spot Tuesday. But Washington's 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday night, when Steve Stamkos scored the game-winner with 1:03 left in regulation, set up the division-clinching scenario.

Coach Kevin Dineen said he didn't watch the game, instead waiting for the start of the NCAA Tournament championship game between Kentucky and Kansas. Dineen did say he was made aware of the score by family members.

All Panthers players interviewed after the morning skate Tuesday, on the other hand, saw Stamkos' late-game heroics.

"I kind of let out a good jump on the couch when he scored with around a minute left," defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We want to get in and work hard by doing what we need to do. But definitely you're always scoreboard-watching at this time of the season. But now we need to take care of our business."

The Panthers, whose playoff drought is the longest in NHL history, have held first place in the Southeast for 123 days this season, including the last 38.

They've managed to hold off Washington despite winning only once in their last seven games, largely because of their ability to pick up points most outings.

But after going 1-2-4 during that stretch, Florida needs a victory Tuesday to make the playoffs a reality.

"It's an exciting time for us, for sure," Dineen said. "We're confident, but also we understand there's still lots of hockey to be played in this season. It's quiet confidence with the understanding that, as always, work has to come before any kind of carrots. Certainly our players are ready to go in and put in a solid effort tonight."

In Winnipeg, the Panthers will be facing a team that saw its playoff hopes disappear in its last game.

But the Panthers aren't about to take the Jets lightly. Florida has won three of the first five meetings, but was shut out 7-0 the last time it faced the Jets, March 1 at Winnipeg.

After Tuesday, the Panthers have games remaining -- at Washington on Thursday, and at home against Carolina on Saturday. But they want those two points right away.

"You want to take anything the first opportunity you get," Campbell said. "We know what our schedule is like. It's been grueling over the last couple of weeks. It's a good challenge. If we play like we played in Detroit, we're going to have a lot of success.

"We're just trying to lock up a playoff spot here, and it's a great opportunity tonight. We've got a great challenge with Winnipeg and being at home is pretty exciting."

Dineen has spoken several times in recent weeks of being happy his team was relevant late in the season. With a victory Tuesday night, the Panthers will be relevant in the postseason.

"Obviously, there's a lot of clarity that we can do things here at home," Dineen said. "There's still some work to do, and we need to go out and take care of our business. It's right there in front of us."

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