Florida Panthers fans, your 12 year long nightmare is over! It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, heck, it didn’t even come from a victory. But, thanks to a 2-1 Philadelphia Flyers win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Panthers clinched their first playoff berth since the 1999-2000 season. The fact that the Panthers lost a 4-2 decision to the Washington Capitals at exactly the same time doesn’t have the same sting. Sure, you’d have loved to wrap up a Southeast Division title but ending a drought that hung around this franchise’s neck like an albatross for far too long sure is a nice consolation price. And besides, the Panthers are in the exact same spot for Saturday’s regular season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes as they were on Thursday: Get a point or a Caps loss and the division is theirs.
It’s funny that the Canes are what stand between the Panthers and the division title and third seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a 4-1 loss to that team in February 2010 that helped jumpstart the rebuilding of the Cats. Then-GM Randy Sexton went on a profanity lace tirade following a 2/9/10 loss to the Canes after a fourth consecutive loss for a team on the fringes of a playoff race. That (and a subseuqnet loss to the Vancouver Canucks) prompted owners Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel to write this letter to fans promising change. It was a bold, ambitious and unprecedented move, sort or like their own Jerry Maguire Mission Statement moment. But, many of the promises in that letter have started to come to fruition as it’s become known as ‘The Blueprint’ for rebuilding this franchise. Sure, it’s only one year but with the Panthers having one of the deepest and talented prospect pools in the league, there is no reason to think that this is going to be a one year fluke.
Three months later, the Panthers hired Dale Tallon to take over the role of GM from Sexton to bring their vision to fruition. Two highly-rated drafts, one painful 2010-11 season (and trade deadline), and one spectacular free agent signing period later and the Cats are well on their way making the vision of that letter a reality. Sure, it’s only one year in the playoffs but with a deep and talented prospect pool ready to assimilate to the senior club over the next few seasons, there’s no reason to think this is just a one year fluke.
For Stephen Weiss, the playoffs come as a reward for loyalty (blind faith, really) for sticking around even when given the opportunity to leave. For year, Weiss has remained while coaches, general managers and even owners have come and gone. Following the end of the 09-10 season, Tallon met with every player and asked them if wanted to remain a Panther or go elsewhere. Nathan Horton, who along with Weiss was considered one of the team’s biggest assets, asked out and soon found himself with a new team shortly thereafter. When given the same opportunity, Weiss expressed his desire to stay and be part of the solution. Thursday, the team’s all-time leader in games played and currently longest-tenured Panther, had his faith rewarded. Want to see a happy guy? Check out the post game interview, courtesy of the Miami Herald’s George Richards.
But there is still work to do. A point Saturday or a Capitals loss of any sort will add the division title to this unexpected season. It would have been nice to wrap it up Thursday but, in the bigger picture, it’s secondary for one night. But be prepared if you’re a Panthers fan. There are still going to be those who would still seek to make this team the butt of jokes, be it from other fans and those in the media. But that’s fine, do you, the Panther fan, really care what anyone says right now? ‘The Blueprint’ is ahead of schedule and the playoffs are back in South Florida. And for your enjoyment, here’s your Florida Panther “Because It’s The Cup” commercial:
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