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After a decade-long drought, Panthers on the verge of playoff return

Getty ImagesThere is just over a week remaining in the 2011-12 season and with only seven of the 16 playoff teams having clinched spots in the postseason tournament, a few more can be wrapped up this weekend. This late in the season, you want to be controlling your own destiny. Close to 80 games in, waiting until now to play catch up and having to rely on other teams to help your playoff fortunes is not recommended.

The Florida Panthers are one of those teams who have their playoff fate in their hands thanks to a season of consistency that's seen them lead the Southeast Division for most of the year. Despite dropping four of their last five games, the Panthers have been able to balance defeats by picking up loser points in four of their last five losses, including last night's 3-2 win by the Minnesota Wild in overtime.

From the Miami Herald on Thursday:

"Sometimes you look at the big picture, and it's right in front of you," winger Kris Versteeg said after a light workout Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center. "It's ours to lose right now. We have to handle our business the next three games here on the road. We need to get the job done."

Scoreboard watching and math have become a daily part of the routine for the Panthers. As of Friday, they're four points ahead of the Washington Capitals with a game in hand. Facing the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight and the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, the possibility of Florida clinching the Southeast Division this weekend is in sight. .

The only "r" word Panthers fans had been used to hearing annually was "rebuild', but this year it's been a renaissance. From the large roster turnover after GM Dale Tallon's spending spree over the summer to the return of the rats earlier this season, the atmosphere of winning has been rediscovered since the Panthers last made the playoffs in 2000.

Now seven general managers and seven head coaches later, Tallon's moves have paid off this season and new head coach Kevin Dineen has quickly turned an entirely new roster into a winner. Those two control the Panthers' future destiny and it's up to them to prove going forward this season was no fluke.

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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