The Florida Panthers are coming of age, literally and figuratively.
After a few years of wandering in the NHL's non-playoff wilderness -- Florida last made the postseason in 2000 -- the Panthers are making a serious claim for a berth in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Heading into Saturday's game against Southeast Division-leading Washington, Florida is an impressive 25-18-8 for 58 points and the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Even more impressively, Florida is 9-2-3 since the New Year, earning 21 of a possible 28 points.
"We've got a group that never says die and it's nice, as a coach, to stand back there and go in between periods knowing, even if they are behind by a couple goals, they're not going to quit," coach Peter DeBoer said after his team rallied from a two-goal deficit to defeat Toronto, 4-3, in overtime Tuesday night. "They are going to play right to the buzzer and they have been rewarded for that a few times this year."
And that success is building upon itself, allowing the team's bevy of young players to mature in a more rapid manner. Florida regularly dresses 10 players that have yet to reach their 26th birthday.Stephen Weiss
, chosen No. 4 by Florida in the 2001 Entry Draft, is the poster poy of this maturation process.
At just 25, Weiss already is the team's alternate captain and a go-to guy on the ice. He has 36 points in 47 games and is on pace for a career-high in points, ready to obliterate the mark of 48 he put up two seasons ago. He had 42 points last season.
Weiss has admitted that the pressure to be a star has weighed on him in the past. Once the Panthers traded franchise center Olli Jokinen this summer, though, Weiss had no choice but to step into the spotlight.
"I know I am counted on here for offense, to be a guy depended on to get a goal or maybe set a play up to get us going," Weiss said. "I put that pressure on myself, as well."
Weiss can put pressure on himself because he has learned to deal with the expectations of fans, the media and his teammates. He suffered more than his share of slings and arrows upon joining the NHL on a full-time basis in 2002-03 from critics that believed he was not developing as rapidly as a top-5 pick should.
"It wasn't easy at the start as an 18- or 19-year-old kid trying to be the go-to guy," Weiss says. "It's not an easy thing to do in this League. But I've stuck with it over the years and kept working. And now, along with some other guys that have been in this room for a while, we are starting to see some better days."
The youngsters -- forwards like David Booth, Gregory Campbell, Nathan Horton and Michael Frolik headline the list -- have been buttressed by a smartly assembled collection of veterans. That group of aging warriors -- defenseman Bryan McCabe and forward Cory Stillman are prime examples -- have given Florida's young guns some much-needed perspective and an insight into what it means to win consistently.
"We have some veterans around," DeBoer says. "You look at our blue line, between the six of them they have couple thousand man-games in NHL and they are really our backbone.
"From there, we have a young group of forwards that are nicely complemented by some veteran guys like (Radek) Dvorak, Stillman and (Ville) Peltonen and some veterans that really stand for the right things, and it's just working for us right now."
Plus, Florida has one of the most effective goaltending tandems in the League. Tomas Vokoun was brought in last season to be the No. 1 guy and has excelled at that role for the most part. On the few occasions Vokoun has stumbled, Craig Anderson has held the fort, emerging as one of the game's most dependable backups.
Yet, despite a stellar 10-4-5 record and .929 save percentage -- second-best in the League entering the weekend -- Anderson refuses to rock the boat by campaigning for more playing time.
"All I want to do is see this team win," Anderson says. "If I am sitting on the bench and we are winning, that's great. If I'm playing and we are winning, that's even better."
DeBoer, the first-year coach, has been at the forefront of building Florida's personality this season. With 30 games left in the season, the coach already has begun scoreboard watching. Pittsburgh and Carolina are within three points of Florida in the fight for the final spot in the East, so the pressure likely won't relent for the rest of the season.
Yet DeBoer isn't overly concerned with what other teams are doing. He knows he has the goods in his own dressing room to get the job done.
"Down the stretch we need our best players to be our best players -- the Hortons, the Weisses, the Stillmans, our defense," he says. "We are not blessed with a lot of star power. We have to do it by committee. There's no secret. As a group we all have to raise our level if we want to have a chance of making the playoffs."