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Southeast: Playoffs or bust for Panthers in 2007-08

by Robert Picarello /

The Florida Panthers hope that new goalie Tomas Vokoun will help get them back to
the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000.
The Florida Panthers have come into the 2007-08 season with one goal in mind – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Last season was a case of close, but no cigar for the Panthers, who finished with 86 points in the Eastern Conference, six points shy of the eighth and final seed in the conference.

This season, armed with a franchise goalie in Tomas Vokoun, an underrated star in Olli Jokinen, a cornerstone defenseman in Bryan Allen, and a trio of future impressive young players in Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester and Stephen Weiss, the Panthers are hopeful they can make up the six-point deficit to reach the postseason.

"We need to take the next step because no one expects us to do it," Horton said. "No one even knows who the Florida Panthers are and I think everyone around the organization – the coaches, the fans – everyone wants to win and I think we have the team to do it. I think everyone in our room realizes that."

Over the summer, management also realized what it had in-house, signing Horton, Weiss and Allen to long-term deals. Florida has Vokoun locked-up for another four years, Jokinen, Brett McLean, Mike Van Ryn and Ruslan Salei for another three, and Jozef Stumpel, Radek Dvorak, Richard Zednik, Ville Peltonen, Cory Murphy and Craig Anderson signed for another two.

By committing to those contracts, the Panthers showed their players and fans they are serious about icing a contending team. From this season forward, the onus will be on those players – especially Horton, Weiss and Allen, who were given the longest deals – to produce.

"The pressure is there for us," Horton admitted. "They showed a lot of confidence in us by locking us up to play here for so long, so we have to do our best and do whatever it takes to help this team win. They're looking for that out of us and we all want to do the best we can."

In his three seasons with the Panthers, Horton has scores 75 goals, including Thursday night’s goal against New Jersey in a 3-0 win, and 58 assists in 210 games. Last season, Horton, the former first-round draft pick (third overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft, came into his own. He scored a career highs in goals (31), assists (31) and points (62).

In watching him grow as an NHL player, many in the Florida organization believe Horton has the ability to score 40-50 goals, which is a tough, tough total for any player in this League to achieve – especially one who's only 22-years-old. But Horton doesn't focus on numbers or what other people say. He just goes out and goes full-throttle every night, and lets the chips – and pucks – fall where they may.

"You don't think about that stuff much," Horton said. "You just go out there and try to play hockey. You're just looking to do your best and help your team win."

Who’s hot -- As of Oct. 10, Carolina's goaltenders were among the game's elite, combining for a 1.75 goals-against average, which was sixth-best average in the league. Cam Ward was 2-0-1 in three games with a 1.66 GAA and a .951 save percentage, while John Grahame was 0-1-0 with a 2.03 GAA and a .939 save percentage. … Tampa Bay's MVP line of Martin St. Louis (0-5-5), Vincent Lecavalier (3-1-4) and Vaclav Prospal (3-1-4) has accounted for 13 points off six goals and seven assists in the Lightning's first three games. … Alex Ovechkin recorded at least a point in Washington's first three games of the year, giving him 99 career goals and 201 career points. Should he record another goal in the next 14 games, he will be the fastest player to reach 100 goals since Eric Lindros reached the mark in 1995.

Southeast quotes -- "You need to have a purpose when you go to the net. You just don't go there because the coach tells you to go. You have to have that fire in your eyes. You have to think there's going to be a rebound. You have to be ready to put the puck in."

-- Florida captain Olli Jokinen said after losing 2-1 to division rival Tampa Bay Wednesday night.

"He played great. When they're going with a guy who's playing his first NHL game, you think you have the advantage. But he proved us wrong. He played tremendous."

-- Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen said after seeing Ottawa goalie Brian Elliott win his NHL debut 2-1 over the Thrashers Wednesday night.

The week ahead -- Friday, Oct. 12, the Capitals take on the Rangers. Saturday, Oct. 13, Tampa Bay plays the Panthers and the Hurricanes are in Montreal, Washington is in Buffalo and the Thrashers are home against the Devils.

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