CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- All those years of watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs on television were tough on Stephen Weiss, but nothing was as painful as last year.
When Boston beat Vancouver in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last June, Weiss had to watch as longtime teammates Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell celebrated the Bruins' championship.
"That was difficult," Weiss said. "I was one of the happiest guys for them for sure, but at the same time [not long] before that they're sitting beside you in your hotel room and you see them out there holding the Stanley Cup, it's tough to swallow. There was a little bit of extra fire burning in the belly over the summer to train harder and get to this point now."
"This point" is the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and for the first time in a career that began in April 2002, Weiss is a part of it.
After playing 637 games, Weiss finally will get to experience what playoff hockey is all about when the Florida Panthers open their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New Jersey Devils Friday (7 p.m., NHLN-US, TSN) at BankAtlantic Center.
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"It's great for him," said veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who made the first of his eight playoff appearances as a rookie with the Panthers in 1996. "The excitement of playoff hockey is what we play for, and for him, 10 years being here and not seeing any of it, we're all as teammates excited for him and I'm sure he's ready to go."
Weiss has been ready to go since the Panthers clinched their first playoff berth since 2000 when the Buffalo Sabres lost at Philadelphia on April 5. Two nights later, the Panthers clinched the first division title in franchise history by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1.
When Weiss steps on the ice Friday, he will end the second-longest current playoff drought in the NHL. Former teammate Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary, has played 717 NHL games without experiencing the postseason.
Weiss is so grateful for this opportunity he made it a point to address his teammates in the dressing room after the regular-season finale.
"I wanted to say something to the guys, [but] I didn't know when," Weiss said. "There were a couple of times down the stretch when I wanted to say something, but I wanted to wait until the right moment and just thank the guys for coming in with the right attitude. We've had a lot of groups here over the last few years and I just felt like the weather and not being the biggest hockey market down here, it's tough sometimes. It's tough to come to the rink and really focus on playing the right way over an 82-game schedule, especially during the dog days of the season where it's tough to get up for games and practices sometimes, especially when the weather is so nice.
"I just wanted to thank the guys for doing a really good job and not losing sight of what we were trying to do this year. It meant a lot to me to get in, and the team, as well. All of it has to do mostly with the guys in the room. We're the ones that go out there and play and practice every day, and just all the new guys, I wanted them to know that meant a lot."
One of four alternate captains on the team, Weiss clearly is respected in the Florida dressing room. The newcomers who came to the team often spoke during the season of wanting to reach the playoffs, not only for themselves but mostly for Weiss.
"He's been here for so long and he's experienced, you know, some good times, but a lot of failure," said forward Kris Versteeg, who at the age of 25 already has 50 games of playoff experience, including in 2010 when he helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. "As a player he's probably [asked] himself whether he wanted to even be here, but now it's getting turned around and the ship is starting to go in the right direction and that's kind of what he talked about, too, and how he's excited about taking the next step and going forward with this.
"When I thought about it, you definitely think, what if I was in that situation and how hard it would be and mentally where would I be? He's a pretty strong dude, and you definitely do feel for him after experiencing some great things at a pretty young age."
Now it's Weiss' turn, along with teammates Shawn Matthias, Jason Garrison, Erik Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby and Mike Santorelli, to experience playoff hockey for the first time.
Even though his only exposure has been what he's seen on television, Weiss says he has a pretty good idea what to expect.
"You definitely know what it's going to be like," he said. "It's going to be faster. Everything is amplified. Every shift is tighter. It's just a lot tighter. There's not a lot of ice out there. Playing for keeps now. It's just going to be a little bit harder in all areas. I'm looking forward to that."