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Panthers Upbeat After Letting Chance To Clinch Slip

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
Forward Kris Versteeg defends against Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The day after, the Florida Panthers didn't try to pretend they didn't still feel the sting of wasting a great opportunity to clinch a playoff berth and the first division title in franchise history.

But the Panthers also took comfort in realizing they're still sitting in a great position.

Despite blowing a 3-0 lead and losing in overtime to Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Panthers still need only one point in their last two games to become Southeast Division champions.

"The mood is good," center Stephen Weiss said. "If you would have told us we need to get a point in the last two games at the start of the year to clinch a division, we would have taken that. Obviously, we're disappointed with the result last night, not being able to hang on. It seems to be the make-up of our team this year. We haven't done anything easy and we've had to work for everything we've gotten."

The one point earned against Winnipeg gave the Panthers a four-point lead over Washington in the Southeast Division and also over Buffalo in the Eastern Conference standings. Each team has two games left, but the Panthers would lose a tiebreaker against either the Sabres or Capitals.

The Panthers can clinch both a playoff berth and a division title Thursday at Washington against the team that has won the Southeast Division the last four years.

"At the end of the day, we've always felt that any kind of success goes through Washington," coach Kevin Dineen said. "That's respect for their history and the talent level that they have. Now it's sitting right there that for us to have success, we have to go into their building and play well."

The Panthers have not played well at the Verizon Center this season, getting shut out in both meetings -- 3-0 on Oct. 18 and 4-0 on Feb. 7.

Former Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun recorded both shutouts for the Capitals, but he likely will miss Thursday's game because of a groin injury.

"Volky's played very well against us there," Weiss said. "I don't think he'll be playing. Maybe that'll give us some positive thoughts going in. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what's happened the two games previous. It's all about tomorrow night. We're excited about the challenge."

The Panthers managed only 20 shots on goal in the first meeting at Washington, but more than doubled that total with 42 shots in the February game at the Verizon Center.

"We've had success when we've kept it simple, throwing pucks to the net and working hard and using our speed and playing hard down low," center Shawn Matthias said. "We've had a couple of struggles at their barn, but it's a good time to change all that."

If there was one bright spot to come out of the Winnipeg game for the Panthers, besides getting the one point, it was their offensive production.

The four goals marked the first time in 10 games the team accomplished that in regulation.

The lack of scoring has been the biggest reason the Panthers are in the midst of a 1-2-5 slide, with six of the seven losses coming against teams out of playoff contention.

The one exception was a 2-1 shootout loss at Detroit on Sunday when the Panthers had perhaps their best performance during this eight-game stretch.

"Details are key," Dineen said. "There's certainly something to be said for what's happened in the League the last two weeks with teams that have fallen out of playoff contention playing their best hockey in the season. It's just a matter of us understanding what our situation is and getting ready to enjoy ... not these last two games, but the next game in Washington."

Despite the loss to Winnipeg, the only scenario in which the Panthers would miss the playoffs for an 11th consecutive season would be if they lost in regulation at Washington and at home against Carolina Saturday, combined with a Washington road victory Saturday against the Rangers, plus Buffalo victories at Philadelphia Thursday and at Boston Saturday.

Weiss says there's really no cause for panic, especially with a roster that features many veterans with playoff experience, such as Brian Campbell, John Madden, Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson.

"That's huge to have guys that have been there, done that before," Weiss said. "They're not panicking. We're still in a really good spot and that's the way we've got to look at it and we've got to enjoy the challenge of where we're at. It's a fun time. I think we're all excited to get to Washington and to start preparing for the game."

Despite blowing a 3-0 lead and losing in overtime to Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Panthers still need only one point in their last two games to become Southeast Division champions. (Photo: Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI)

Weiss has reason to be more anxious than anybody else on the roster considering only Calgary defenseman and former teammate Jay Bouwmeester has played more NHL games without making the playoffs.

Tuesday's game came on Weiss' 29th birthday, exactly 10 years after he made his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It would have made for the perfect birthday present for Weiss.

A couple of stats from the game show just how surreal the loss became. The Panthers lost for only the second time all season after having a three-goal lead. They also had won 38 consecutive games, dating back to January of 2010, when scoring at least four goals.

Yes, it was a major bummer. But at this point, Weiss and his teammates will take a playoff berth any way they can get it.

"It would have been nice to do it at home for our fans," Weiss said. "They deserve to see that. But at the same time, I remember going into Washington a few years back when they turned their team around and watched them clinch the division there. It would be nice for us to go in and do it, but it's not going to be easy. We're going to have a hungry team on our hands. But we'll go in with the mindset that we want to finish it off.

"At this level, you've got to have amnesia. You've got to be able to put things aside. We've done a good job of doing that all year. It was a tough night certainly to swallow it, but you wake up this morning and it's a fresh start. We've got two games to go and we're ready to go."

Author: Alain Poupart | Correspondent

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