Washington Capitals' Eric Fehr (14) looks for the puck against Florida Panthers goalie Craig Anderson (31) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, April 5, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
WASHINGTON – The end of the 2007-08 season occurred here Saturday night for the Panthers.
Inside the Verizon Center, the Panthers turned their backs and skated off the ice while the Capitals celebrated their Southeast Division title with 18,277 frenzied fans after their 3-1 victory over the Panthers.
For the Panthers, the season ended with a 38-35-9 record and a thoughts of what might have been.
"We had some games we lost in February that could have put us over the hump," said GM and Head Coach Jacques Martin.
The Panthers ended the season with a 10-4-1 record, but "One thing we learned is that we need those kinds of stats early in the seaon," said Martin.
The Panthers set a franchise records for 20 road wins and tied the record for consecutive victories (7). They also ended the season with 38 victories, the most for a Panther team since 1999-00 and the third most in franchise history.
But the playoffs eluded the Panthers, and when they look back they will focus on a few stretches that ultimately killed their shot at the post season. Certainly, the three consecutives games they couldn’t hold two-goal leads from Feb. 16-21 will haunt them. Consecutive losses and somewhat lackluster performances at Tampa and home against Atlanta in March surely didn’t help, either.
But much earlier in the season, the Panthers fumbled chances. They started the season winning three of their first eight games and struggled despite talk over the off-season of getting off to a fast start. They lost five of six to start November, three of four to start December, and five of six in December and January.
“The team needed a better start,” said forward Brett McLean. “We definitely need to focus on that next year. It’s not good enough to play good in just March.”
Steve Montador, who played defense and offense and set career highs in goals (8), assists (15), points (23) and games played (73), said he felt the team started coming together in December, especially during a road trip that started Dec. 13 with a 1-0 victory in St. Louis.
“I think we made a lot of strides in December, during the road trip in St. Louis,” he said. “That was a key game for us. We won against a good home team. That was the start of us learning to grow. We became a much better road team then in the past, and that was a big stride.”
Montador also said he felt the Panthers persevered through injuries.
“For the most part, I think we did a really good job facing adversity,” he added. “It’s not to make any excuses, but we had a number of injuries. We battled. We had guys step into roles they hadn’t had before. Guys like (Kamil) Kreps and (Magnus) Johansson.”
The best part of the Panther season, however, was its franchise-record, seven game winning streak, kicked off by two Craig Anderson shutouts in the beginning of March at Long Island and Boston.
“The only real positive was going on that streak,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who had a career-high 15 goals and led the league in ice time. “We didn’t get off to the start we wanted and that put us in a bad position, always trying to come from behind.”
The seven-game streak, said David Booth, who set career highs in goals (22) and points (40), “lets us know it’s something we can do and we’re capable of doing next season.”
But one winning streak during the season can’t sustain a team, McLean said. “Every team goes through a run like that,” he said. “Every team has high points in the season. I guess it’s trying to eliminate the low points, and have a few more of those runs.”
And play more consistently through the 82 game schedule.
“I think we had a problem with our consistency, during the 82 games, through 60 minutes,” said Ville Peltonen.
And because of that, the Panthers returned late Saturday evening to South Florida with six months to think about next year.
“There’s not a whole lot good,” Bouwmeester said. “Anyone who’s satisfied with the way things went this year…it’s not a good thing.”
NOTES Goalie Tomas Vokoun didn’t dress for the regular-season finale. Vokoun suffered back spasms Friday in Carolina and couldn’t return to goal after the first 20 minutes. Backing up Craig Anderson in Washington was Tyler Plante. Recalled from Rochester, Plante is 5-14-1 with a 3.15 goals against…Defenseman Jassen Cullimore, who led the Panthers with a plus-21, sat out Saturday’s finale with a hand injury. Branislav Mezei suited up…The Panthers have their final meeting Monday before cleaning out their lockers for the summer…