by Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
“The game is the same – it’s just up on a different level.” Bob Dylan
Things are different this time.Nathan Horton will tell you that after a morning workout here at BankAtlantic Center with a dozen other Panthers. Stephen Weiss will tell you that after meeting more than 500 fans at a recent Cats Cookout.“There’s a feeling this summer,” Weiss said.It’s that the Panthers’ game in 2007-08 is moving to a different level. In the words of Nathan Horton: “We’re going to start and not look back.”Nearly two months after playing their final game of the 2006-07 season, the Panthers can’t seem to wait until training camp to begin. There’s a hunger to get back on the ice and pick up where they left off last season.“Our team is ready to take the next step,” Horton said.The reason for the optimism is quite simple. Despite a sluggish start, the Panthers ended the season on a roll, going 25-13-10 after Dec. 15 and finishing the final 22 games 12-5-5. The 21-year-old Horton had his first 30-goal season (31) while setting a career-high for points (62). The 22-year-old Weiss had his first 20-goal season, set a career-high in points (48), and became the youngest Panther to ever wear the ‘A’ on his sweater. Rostislav Olesz, just 22, also set career records in goals (19), assists (32) and points (51).Production didn’t just come from the youngsters. Captain Olli Jokinen set career marks in goals (39), assists (52) and points (91) while leading the team in offense for the second consecutive year. Defenseman Ruslan Salei set career marks in goals (6) and points (32) while defenseman Bryan Allen set career marks in assists (21) and points (25).It’s all making for a team that’s hungry and out to prove something come the 2007-08 season.“I think we’re coming together as a team,” Horton said. “Everyone wants to win. We’re watching the playoffs and everyone wants to be there next season and that’s why everybody is working so hard now, to come into camp and be the best they can be.“Everyone is ready. You can tell. Everyone is focused on winning. The way to win is to work hard, and, like the fans, we can’t wait to come back. It’s exciting to be around.”Weiss says the Panthers will enter training camp prepared to start the season strong.“We have to come into camp with a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “I hope everyone is upset (about last year’s slow start). That is the key to us. We have to be upset right away and play like that early. We can’t wait a couple months to play the way we do in the second half of the season. We have to come out and be angry early.”Things are definitely different this time.