In his first seven NHL seasons, Florida center Stephen Weiss
never has seen postseason action.
But with the Panthers winning four of their last five, they've jumped into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. So is the facial scruff growing on the 26-year-oldan early playoff beard?
"I'm on the road, just letting it go," he said with a chuckle. But if things keep going the way they are, Weiss could have ample time to add to his facial follicles.
And if the Panthers do make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000, it will be on the backs of Weiss and his linemate, right wing Nathan Horton
"They're taking their game to another level," said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer
. "They have to. They're the go-to guys here now."
Right now, those two are carrying the Panthers. With a goal and 3 assists in Monday's 4-1 win in Philadelphia, Weiss has points in seven straight games, and in his last 15 games, he has 11 goals and 22 points. He has 18 goals in 38 games this season, leaving him two shy of his career high of 20, set in 2006-07.
Horton has 6 goals and 18 points in his last 15 games, and his 37 points in 38 games already puts him close to last season's total of 45, and has him on pace for his first 80-point season.
"Things are clicking right now and hopefully they continue to do that," said Horton. "We're trying to do anything to contribute and help our team win."
On the ice the pair has matured into consistent first-line performers. Off the ice, they have stepped into leadership roles. Where once the Panthers were Olli Jokinen
's team, Roberto Luongo
's team and Jay Bouwmeester
's team, now the fortunes of the club will rise and fall with Weiss and Horton.
"We've been here long enough," said Horton. "I think it's about time we step up."
"We definitely have to be the two guys to lead by example on and off the ice," added Weiss.
DeBoer has liked what he's seen so far from his duo. "It was Jokinen and Bouwmeester and there were a lot of other names over the years," said DeBoer. "But they've been here, they're the guys now and they're responding to that pressure."
Weiss, in his eighth season, and Horton, in his sixth, are the longest-tenured members of the Panthers. But all they have to show for their experience is a lot of early starts to their golf season.
"It's definitely frustrating," said Horton. "It's long summers when you're not in the playoffs. We haven't been in there since I've been in the NHL. We want to turn that around."
Weiss said he doesn't stare at the standings every day, but he knows the Panthers' place in the conference.
"We certainly know where we're at and where we want to go," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do, still have a long way to go. But we're certainly making strides in the right direction from where we started. Hopefully we can keep going and keep getting better and we get guys healthy and we keep pushing forward."
"They're taking their game to another level. They have to. They're the go-to guys here now." -- Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, on Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton
The Panthers just missed ending their playoff drought last season, losing on the third tiebreaker to the Montreal Canadiens
for the No. 8 spot. All that did was make them hungrier this season.
"It's been tough the last eight years," said Weiss. "We were really close last year. This is where I was drafted and where I want to be and make this thing work and get this team into the playoffs and make a run. We've got a lot of work to do and it looks like we're making strides in the right direction."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org