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Bittersweet Victory

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun celebrates the Panthers' 7-4 win over the Washington Capitals during an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 11, 2009, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Mitchell)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


SUNRISE – It was bittersweet.

A team with potential, a team leaving BankAtlantic Center as winners, disappearing here into the night with nowhere to go next week.

No more games. No playoffs.

“Like a punch to the stomach,” leading scorer Stephen Weiss.

Disappointed. Frustrated. Discouraged.

Those were some of the emotions the Panthers expressed over the weekend as they closed their 2008-09 season Saturday evening with a 7-4 victory over the Capitals.

The Panthers finished the season 41-30-11. It was the third time in franchise history the Panthers finished with 40 or more wins. The 93 points represented the second most in franchise history.

But after literally giving the shirts off their backs to the fans, after the Panthers left the ice, a dozen workers started breaking up the ice at BankAtlantic Center.

Close. So, so close. But on the outside looking in. The Panthers could end the season tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference in points, but they will still finish out of the playoffs because of their number of wins compared to the Rangers or their head-to-head record against the Canadiens.

The fact the Panthers still came out and beat the Capitals with the help of David Booth’s five points (two goals) and goals from Steve Eminger and Michael Frolik eight seconds apart in the third period spoke of the Panthers desire to go out winners.

“It’s a little disappointing because the game didn’t mean anything in the standings,” said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. “But from a pride point of view I think we wanted to finish tied with Montreal and the Rangers for seventh and eighth, and the fact we don’t get in on a technicality is something we’ll have to live with.”

Yes, the Panthers missed the playoffs again. But this time it was different. This time they had a chance. This time they were a team other teams feared.

“Last year we were chasing it all year,” said forward Brett McLean. “This year we were in it all year. This year we feel like we were one of the top eight teams in the conference and let it slip away ourselves.”

Yes, there were eight 3-8 in shootouts. But the Panthers will look back at another slow start (7-11-1). Or they may look ultimately at March as their Waterloo, specifically between March 10-25 when they could only win one of eight games and watched third-period leads against Buffalo, Tampa and Pittsburgh end in defeats.

“I can think of six, seven points we had in the bag off the top of my head that we gave up and, if we didn’t, we’d be fighting for home ice now,” McLean added.

“Certain games we didn’t take advantage of,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.

Just 48 hours earlier in Atlanta, the Panthers were battling for a playoff spot. Late Saturday night, they were making plans to clean out their lockers Monday morning.

“You go from having everything at stake to having nothing at stake in 24 hours,” DeBoer said. Still, the Panthers responded with victory No. 41. “Under the circumstances, we showed up and did what we did all year – competed and gave the fans what we had,” he added.

Gregory Campbell, one of many Panthers to set career highs this season, said, “Whether you’re tied for seventh or you’re ninth all alone, it comes down to winning games and we had a chance.”

“Hopefully, next year we’ll be able to look back and not worry about letting it go this far – the last few games of the season,” he added. “We’re a good team. We were one of the better teams for a majority of the year. We have to build on that and improve.”

“We did so many good things,” said forward Brett McLean.

We have to look at the positives, how hard we played,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of positives to come out of this year.

But the Panthers aren’t in the playoffs. “And that’s the ultimate form of respect in this league,” DeBoer said.

There’s so many decisions come this off-season. Does Bouwmeester, an unrestricted free agent, stay or go? “I don’t know,” he said when asked Saturday evening if he had played his last game in a Panther jersey. “It’s a process. Until July 1 there’s nothing you can do anyway.”

What about unrestricted free agent goalie Craig Anderson (“It’s up to management. If I’m in their plans? Great.”) Other unrestricted players include veteran forwards Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen and Richard Zednik and defensemen Karlis Skrastins, Nick Boynton and Jassen Cullimore.

“We’re right there, we’re right on the edge,” Booth said.

But it will have to wait until next season.

PANTHERS GO OUT WINNERS

Booth’s five points, including his 30th and 31st goals of the season, helped the Panthers to their 7-4 victory. Booth becomes only the sixth Panther player to record 30 or more goals in a season. He adds his name to the list of Pavel Bure, Scott Mellanby, Ray Whitney, Olli Jokinen and Nathan Horton.

“Kind of cool,” Booth said. “That’s a lot of good players. Coach DeBoer put a lot of confidence in me this year.”

After the Capitals scored the opening goal of the game at 10:15 of the first period, the Panthers scored three unanswered goals (Booth, Dvorak and Bryan McCabe on the power play) before the Capitals tied the game at three early in the second period. After Booth and Alex Ovechkin traded goals to make it 4-4, the Panthers got goals eight seconds apart from Steve Eminger and Michael Frolik and an empty-netter from Nick Tarnasky to make it a night.

The Panthers end the season with six wins in their last eight games.

AWARDS

Prior to the game, Jay Bouwmeester was recognized as the ADT Defensive Player of the Year, David Booth as the BankAtlantic MVP and Tomas Vokoun as the Mayors Three Stars.

PLAN MOVING FORWARD

The Panthers will clean out their lockers and have a final meeting with management and coaches Monday morning before calling it a season. Early plans: Weiss said he’ll likely undergo wrist surgery soon, and Frolik will leave Tuesday for the Czech Republic to train for its World Championship team.

NOTES

Weiss won 12 of 17 faceoffs, had two assists and was a plus-4…Eminger, a healthy scratch the past nine games, was a plus-2 with three blocked shots…Ville Peltonen, Nick Boynton were healthy scratches for the Panthers. Tom Poti and Quintin Lang for the Caps…Goalie Tomas Vokoun made 27 saves for his 26th victory of the season…
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