Florida Panthers feeling like it’s 1999

View from my seat at a Panthers game earlier this season at BankAtlantic Center. // Photo by Christina De Nicola

View from my seat at a Panthers game earlier this season at BankAtlantic Center. // Photo by Christina De Nicola

SUNRISE, Fla. — While the Miami Marlins get set to premiere their new ballpark in Little Havana in front of a national audience for Wednesday’s Opening Night, the hockey team an hour north hopes to extend its season.

With a win Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets, the Florida Panthers would reach the postseason for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. It has been an NHL-record 10 seasons (11 years).

“Obviously, it’s something that we’ve talked about in the room,” right wing Kris Versteeg said. “You don’t want to prolong a process, but it’s also going to be a tough two points. Every team we’ve been playing right now — whether they’re in the playoffs or not — has been playing very well.”

And the possibility for history doesn’t stop there.

Paired with the Panthers win, Florida would capture its first Southeast Division in franchise history if the Washington Capitals lose Monday night against Tampa Bay. Otherwise, it might come to a showdown Thursday night at the Verizon Center.  

The Capitals and star Alex Ovechkin have nabbed four consecutive titles since 2007. It would mark a true achievement for South Florida’s team to end that reign.

“That’s the goal,” head coach Kevin Dineen said of winning the division. “We’ve had that spot for a long time, the majority of the season. It’s not going to be given to us. Nothing has been given to us this season. And that’s part of the fun of it. We’ve been playing to be a big part of the conversation down the stretch. We’re right in the thick of it right now.”

Defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who was on the 1995-96 team that reached the organization’s only Stanley Cup Final (losing in four games to the Colorado Avalanche), realizes what’s at stake.

“Anytime your team has the opportunity to go to the postseason… it’s a long year and it’s tough to make the playoffs,” Jovanovski said. “It goes without saying that we’ve just got to keep on going here.”

During the offseason, Dale Tallon, executive vice president and general manager of hockey operations, brought in veteran free agents like Jovanovski and goaltender Jose Theodore to make this team into a playoff contender.

Instead of trying to play spoiler with the season winding down — a role the team has performed over the past years — it is in the thick of the race trying to clinch.

“A lot of people didn’t see us at this spot right now, and we just worked hard, believed in each other and we’ve still got a big week ahead of us,” Theodore said. “This time, for the last month, every game is the biggest game of the year. Until you clinch that playoff spot, the last month every game has been huge.”

After a 1-1-2 roadtrip that included losses to division dwellers in Columbus and Minnesota, the Panthers look to regroup. Despite solid goaltending from Theodore and backup Scott Clemmensen, the offense has produced just seven goals in its past 10 games.

Dineen believes his guys have been tired. As the saying goes with he and his staff, “Your legs can be tired, but our thinking has to be high.”

“I think we’re looking forward to today to getting a breath,” Dineen said. “Tomorrow will be here very quickly, and I think the message we got across to our team is that sometimes after those long roadtrips you come out a little sleepy, and we can’t afford to do that tomorrow night.”

Tallon, the architect that put this team together, even delivered a message to the players: go out and enjoy the opportunity presented to them.

“Sometimes it’s not the end game, it’s the process,” Dineen said. “The road’s not always via 95, sometimes you’re on those back roads and they’re a little bumpy and you just stick with it and some things fall.

“We’re an evolving team here and we would have loved to have been in a comfy spot a couple weeks ago, [but] that’s not our situation. So as always what we’ve done is dealt the hand that’s been given to us really well and made the most of it.”  

Come Tuesday night, the Panthers can prove once again that ice doesn’t have to melt in Sunrise in mid-April.

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