After a long wait, Panthers relish playoff berth

April 8, 2012

SUNRISE, Fla. — Brian Campbell has a message for Florida Panthers fans. You now can wear your gear proudly.
For 10 straight seasons, the Panthers failed to make the playoffs. Last season, they were dead last in the Eastern Conference.
But that all has changed. Helped by Campbell and several other new acquisitions, the Panthers wrapped up the Southeast Division title with a 4-1 home win over Carolina in Saturday’s season finale. They now head to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 (there was no season in 2004-05 due to the lockout) as the East’s No. 3 seed, meeting No. 6 New Jersey starting Friday at 7 p.m. ET at BankAtlantic Center.
“If you told any fan from any league, 'I’m a Florida Panthers fan,' they’d laugh at you,’’ Campbell, a four-time All-Star defenseman, said of how it used to be. “Maybe you didn’t even say that. But now, [Panthers fans are] proud. They can say that. They can hold their head up and support the team.’’
Their support was quite evident when the final horn sounded Saturday. Hundreds of rubber rats were thrown onto the ice.
It was a nod back to 1996, when fans did that at Miami Arena. That’s when the surprising Panthers made the Stanley Cup Finals before losing 4-0 to Colorado.
“I actually said to [Campbell], ‘It’s going to rain here right at the buzzer,’ and it did. A lot of rats,’’ defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. “It was good to see, and it definitely brought back some memories.’’
Jovanovski is the only Florida player that skated for that 1995-96 team (he was traded in 1999 before returning for this season as a free agent). Jovanovski came back with the hope of helping steer the Panthers back into the playoffs.
That’s what happened, as the Panthers clinched their spot last Thursday. Even though Florida plays in the weakest division in the NHL and had a hardly-dominant 38-26-18 record, that hardly matters to center Stephen Weiss.
No Florida player has suffered longer than Weiss. He joined the team in 2001-02 and had went through nine straight seasons without a taste of the playoffs.
“It’s pretty awesome,’’ Weiss said in the jubilant Panthers locker room after Saturday’s win while wearing a Southeast Division champion T-shirt. “A surreal feeling. It hasn’t been easy all year …. This team pushed hard, but we found a way to win and win the division. That’s what we wanted to do at the start of the year.
“[The fans] deserve it. They have been great through the year, and over the past 10 years or so for sticking with us. So I’m happy for them.’’
At one time, a Panthers fan was a kid in Lethbridge, Alberta, named Kris Versteeg. Not long after the team had entered the NHL in 1993, his mother gave him a Panthers T-shirt.
“When you’re a little kid and you get to see a cool logo at the time when it came out and a cool name, and I think as a kid I enjoyed it,’’ Versteeg said.
When Versteeg was 10, the Panthers unexpectedly made the finals. He said he “cheered for an underdog’’ during those playoffs.
Well, Versteeg has grown up to become a Florida wing. He said he still has that Panthers T-shirt in a closet back home and might ask for it to be sent down as Florida tries to make another surprising run at the Stanley Cup.
“Now, we’re an underdog again, and obviously I think we’re going to have lot of fans cheering for an underdog,’’ Versteeg said.
While having won the division gives Florida the higher seed and home-ice advantage against New Jersey, the Devils do have the better record at 48-28-6. And New Jersey enters the playoffs having won six straight while the Panthers have lost five of six.
But the Panthers did slightly outplay the Devils in four regular-season meetings. They picked up five points to New Jersey’s four, going 2-1-1.
“It’s going to be a good series,’’ said Campbell, who, along with Versteeg, won a Stanley Cup with Chicago two years ago. “I feel we’re going to give ourselves a good chance …. I’m sure nobody is counting on us to win too much, and that’s fine by all of us. We know we have a chance and an opportunity to win that series.’’

Chris Tomasson can be reached at or on Twitter @christomasson