|The Panthers have their first crack at clinching a playoff spot on Tuesday. A win against Winnipeg, regulation loss by Buffalo or post-regulation losses by both (Florida/Buffalo) puts them in the 2012 playoffs.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) - Hockey's longest active playoff drought may finally be ending.
Not a moment too soon for the Florida Panthers, either.
If the Panthers beat Winnipeg on home ice Tuesday night, Florida will be headed to the postseason for the first time since 2000. Only six teams from the four major U.S. sports leagues are currently going longer than the Panthers without a postseason appearance - the NFL's Buffalo Bills, and baseball teams in Baltimore, Toronto, Kansas City, Washington and Pittsburgh.
"I'd hope we think it's our destiny," Panthers forward Kris Versteeg said.
Entering Monday, the Panthers led Washington by three points in the Southeast Division, plus held a five-point edge over Buffalo with three games remaining. The Southeast race for the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed could go down to Saturday's finales - Florida has never won a division crown - but regardless of what the Buffalo Sabres or Washington Capitals do going forward, a two-point night Tuesday would be enough to wrap up a Florida postseason celebration.
A really, really, long-awaited celebration, that is.
And while the odds overwhelmingly suggest the Panthers will make the playoffs even if they lose Tuesday, Florida would rather clinch on home ice.
"You know what? This community and our fans deserve this, and our players know it," Panthers President Michael Yormark said Monday. "I've been traveling with the team for the last week and they feel it, they know it. These fans have supported us for so long. We've got a core and this core stuck with us. And so the opportunity to clinch at home in front of hopefully a really good crowd ... would be thrilling."
There's some symmetry that may be at work on Tuesday as well.
Florida's second-leading scorer this season, Stephen Weiss was a teenager when the Panthers drafted him No. 4 overall in 2001. His 29th birthday is Tuesday, and only one active player - former Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, now with Calgary - has been in more NHL regular-season games without skating on playoff ice.
"We won't look past Tuesday," Panthers first-year coach Kevin Dineen said Sunday after his team lost to Detroit in a shootout, an Achilles' heel for Florida this season. "I've been giving you the same schtick for a couple months now. But certainly, we're excited."
Some of the numbers are staggering.
Since the Panthers last played a playoff game, 563 names (some of them duplicate) have been etched on the Stanley Cup. More than 200 players have skated with Florida for at least one game. Brian Rafalski has been in 161 postseason contests, Martin Brodeur has won 61 playoff games, Patrick Marleau has 50 playoff goals. Versteeg got his name on the Cup twice in the same year; the first one was misspelled and scratched off, a rare correction on hockey's chalice.
"The ball's in our court," said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who like Versteeg helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010. "Obviously for our division, it's in our hands. We have the opportunity. We're still looking at that. First you need to clinch a playoff spot and that's something that we're working on. So it'll be an exciting game Tuesday night against a division rival, a must-win game for us."
It's no coincidence that Campbell, Versteeg, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky are in Florida now after helping the Blackhawks end a 49-year drought without titles. Dale Tallon put together much of the core of that Chicago team when he was general manager there, and took over as Florida's GM about a month before the Blackhawks won their championship.
Tallon addressed the Panthers for about 90 seconds on Saturday, simply calming down an anxious bunch that had been stumbling of late.
"It's not something that he does a lot," Dineen said. "But I thought it was a very strong message he delivered. ... Dale speaking from his heart is what it was."
Buffalo hasn't been to the NFL playoffs since the wild-card round following the 1999 season. In baseball, Washington (then as Montreal) was in the postseason last in 1981, Kansas City in 1985, Pittsburgh in 1992, Toronto in 1993 and Baltimore in 1997.
If Florida gets out of that dubious club, its attention will turn toward snapping another drought.
The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since 1997. As early as next week, that might change as well.
"If we get in, and God willing we will get in, then it's a whole new chapter for us," Yormark said. "Then we can focus on what kind of run we can make in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But this season has been defined around getting into the postseason. And we can taste it. We can feel it. We can smell it. It's right in front of us. It's in our grasp and now we've just got to go out and take care of business."
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