The Florida Panthers needed every single one of their 82 regular season games but, on Saturday night at the Bank Atlantic Center, they emerged as champions of the Southeast Division with a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. They knew before they took the ice that if they were going to win he division, they were going to have to earn it as the Washington Capitals were soundly beating the New York Rangers in their game just as the Panthers took to the ice for theirs.

And with that knowledge in their minds, the Panthers came out strong to start the first period. Marcel Goc opened the game’s scoring at 4:02 after winning the offensive zone face off, taking the pass from Dmitry Kulikov, and patiently waiting for Brian Boucher to commit (so much so that Boucher threw his stick) and buried his shot into an open cage. It wasn’t long before the Florida lead doubled, thanks to some brilliant passing between John Madden and Tomas Kopecky that culminated with Madden finishing the play into another open cage for the 2-0 lead.

The Panthers ran the count to 3-0 when Stephen Weiss would put back a rebound of a Mikael Samuelsson shot from the point on the power play. It was the same seemingly insurmountable lead the Panthers built Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets before they reeled off four straight goals in their win. For maybe just a minute, Panther fans had a sense of ‘oh no, not again’ when Joni Pitkanen needed three seconds to convert a power play at 8:26 of the third. But, on this night of celebration, there would be no come back as the Panthers, thanks to a strong performance from Scott Clemmensen in net, would give no more ground. Samuelsson’s empty netter would send the crowd of 19,000 into a frenzy as they counted down the games final seconds before littering the ice with rats as the Panthers celebrated their first division title in team history.

Inside the Panthers dressing room following the game it was all smiles as owner Cliff Viner, President Michael Yorkmark, GM Dale Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos hugged and congratulated players as division championship hats and t-shirts were passed out. It was a just reward for a team, given no credit by many to start the season, that battled and always believed in the guy next to them. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty much of the time but there are no style points in hockey. The rewards are for the mentally tough as teams grind through a brutal 82 game schedule and, no matter what, no one can question this team’s mental toughness and resolve. Much has been made about the team’s high number for OT/Shootout losses but it shows how much battle and ‘push back’ this team had most nights.

And now, not only can we talk playoffs, we can talk matchups as the Panthers draw the New Jersey Devils, ironically the last team the Cats faced in the playoffs in 2000. There are storylines a plenty for this one and we’ll have them for you all week on The Rat Trick, the least of which is the guy behind the bench for the Devils.

As for now, here’s some video from last night’s post game interviews on The Rat Trick’s You Tube Page.

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