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After Twelve Long Years, the Florida Panthers Are in the Playoffs: A Fan’s Take
The Florida Panthers will skate into the playoffs for the first time in twelve years. The Cats had a chance to clinch the NHL's Southeast Division if they could beat the Washington Capitals on April 5. The Capitals beat the Panthers 4-2 but because the Buffalo Sabres lost to the Philadelphia Flyers the same night, both the Panthers and the Capitals will advance to the playoffs.
I've been watching the Panthers for a long time now and this is a surreal experience. Usually at this time of year I am writing about the Panthers' draft prospects for next season. This year Panthers' fans get the rare treat of a little more hockey.
The Southeast Division
The division title is still up for grabs. The Panthers have one game left on Sat. April 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Cats still have a two point lead on the Capitals. If the Caps beat the New York Rangers on April 7, the Panthers would need either a win or an overtime loss against the Hurricanes to take the division. If the Capitals can't beat the Rangers, the Panthers will win the division by default.
I like the Panthers' chances to take the Southeast. The Hurricanes are sitting at the bottom of the division, it should be a winnable game for a team that is playing for a playoff seed. The Capitals have to go to New York to face the Rangers. The Rangers have already clinched their division and may rest a few starters but it's never easy to face a 51-23-7 team at home.
The Panthers have never taken the Southeast Division title in their franchise history. Even in 1996 when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals, they came in third place in the old Atlantic Division and snuck into the playoffs.
The Playoff Outlook
If the Cats are able to win the Southeast they will most likely face the New Jersey Devils in the first round. The final game of the season will be a big deal because if the Cats lose the division lead, they will have to face the Rangers in the first round. The Panthers probably won't win the Stanley Cup this year but I don't think any of the fans want to see them get knocked out in the first round.
The Panthers' center Stephen Weiss is the leader of the team and wants this playoff berth more than anyone. Weiss was drafted in the first round of the NHL draft in 2001, one year after the last time the Cats made the playoffs. Weiss has spent his entire career with the Panthers and is certainly hungry for a playoff appearance.
Ironically, the Devils are the team that knocked the Cats out in the first round of the 2000 playoffs when the Devils swept the Panthers 4-0. They say history repeats itself but I think the Panthers can break the cycle if given the chance.
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Kristian Eberwein is a freelance journalist from Orlando, Florida. He was an English major at the University of Central Florida and has been a part of the Florida hockey community for the past twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @KrisEberwein.
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