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Southeast: Optimism abounds in Florida

by Robert Picarello

Coach Jacques Martin and the Florida Panthers are encouraged by the way they played away from home this season, and could finish with 87 points.
Panthers-Thrashers highlights 
While the Florida Panthers will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, there's reason to smile in Sunrise, Fla.

The Panthers played solid hockey down the stretch. Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Panthers are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and 8-3-1 in March, which was their best month of the season. Florida won seven straight games last month and picked up at least one point in nine straight. That unbelievable run in March allowed the Panthers to stay in the playoff race until the final days of the 2007-08 campaign.

The club also won a franchise-best 19 games on the road this year and can add another two victories to that total if it wins its final two games. Winning out also would give the Panthers 87 points, which would be one more than last year.

"I think every year the organization has gotten better – they've improved in points," backup goalie Craig Anderson said. "They've been one step closer to the playoffs. This is only my second season with the organization, but the way we finished last year was strong. I think we have the character to continue on with that from last year."

Next season, the Panthers not only will have the character, the team also will have the horses that are needed to contend in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. Florida has several key players locked up for next season and beyond, including its three top scorers – Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss.

Jokinen is signed for two more seasons, while Horton and Weiss both are signed for five more seasons. Starting goalie Tomas Vokoun is under contract for three more seasons, and defenseman Bryan Allen is signed for another four. Additionally, defenseman Mike Van Ryn and center Brett McLean have two seasons left on their contracts, while center Jozef Stumpel, right wings Radek Dvorak and Richard Zednik, left wing Ville Peltonen, defenseman Cory Murphy and Anderson all are signed for next season.

"There's a bright future here," Allen said. "It's going to be a great place to play, but we have to win in order to make the playoffs. I'm really excited about the future here. I think the mixture on this team is good. I think a mixture of veterans and youth is vital to any team because the way the game is played now you have to develop the players in your organization and get them ready to play. I think we have a good mix of older guys and young guys. But as a whole, we're a pretty young group. We're also a pretty close-knit group."

"I think every team needs youth and energy in the lineup and our veterans are great with the young guys," Anderson, who has won seven of his past eight starts, said. "They push them along and make them all feel like they're a part of the team. I don't think anyone on this team doesn't feel like he's a part of this team. Some teams are like that. They won't even talk to the younger guys, but not here. Everybody here jells together and everybody communicates well. Whether you're young or old, everyone has a part on this team."

Who's hot –
Florida's Craig Anderson has won five consecutive starts, dating back to Feb. 23, allowing a combined five goals in those games. Anderson also recorded back-to-back 1-0 shutouts during the impressive run, stopping a combined 93 shots in the two nail-biting wins. … Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk has 10 points in his last 10 games. Kovalchuk led the Thrashers with 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 15 games during March, posting five multi-point efforts and earning a plus-2 rating in those contests. … Tampa Bay forward Jeff Halpern has had a significant raise in his point production since joining the Lightning at the trade deadline. In 17 games with the Bolts, Halpern has contributed 10 goals and eight assists. … Carolina's Chad LaRose has five points in his last four games and four goals in his last three games, including a hat trick in a 6-2 win against Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. … Washington's Cristobal Huet has won his last seven starts and has posted two shutouts in his first month with the Capitals, including a 3-0 blanking of the Panthers last Saturday. Huet has a 9-2-0 record for the Caps, including a 4-1 win against the Hurricanes, when he turned aside 21 of the 22 shots he faced Tuesday night in Washington.

Southeast Quotes –
"It's been a tough year. We've had some personnel changes. We're trying to work together and get better as a team, but obviously, we know where we're at. We're trying to work for the future and trying to work hard to come together as a team."

– Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, on Wednesday night after the Lightning lost, 6-2, to the Carolina Hurricanes.

"You could tell what was at stake. If this is what it's like in the playoffs in the NHL, no wonder it's an exciting game. The NHL knew what they were doing when they put the schedule together. If they wanted tight races, they got it."

– Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, after the Capitals defeated the Hurricanes, 4-1, Tuesday to keep the battle for the Southeast Division title – and a playoff berth – alive.

A look ahead –
On Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes end their season against Florida. On Saturday, the rest of the Southeast Division closes out their regular seasons, as the Panthers travel to Washington and the Atlanta Thrashers host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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