NHL

Division title, playoff run make Panthers hopeful

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP)

The clock on the wall was frozen at 16:13, what the scoreboard showed when the postseason ended and the offseason started. A few players peeled off their equipment very slowly, maybe from exhaustion, maybe because they simply weren't ready to leave. Barely anyone spoke in a voice above a whisper.

Predictably, the Florida dressing room was a depressing place after the Panthers' Game 7 loss to New Jersey ousted them from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What was said in that room, however, presented a much different message.

''It stings. It stings to lose at home,'' Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. ''But we've got some bright years ahead. We've got some kids coming up that are pretty darn good players. So it'll be a fun summer training, and we'll try to do it all over again next year.''

That mantra - ''wait `til next year'' - had been an end-of-season theme around the Panthers for more than a decade. Only this time, it comes with actual proof that better days are coming.

After a season that saw the franchise enjoy its first division title, first playoff trip in 12 years and first postseason game victory in 15 years, there was much for the Panthers to be happy with, even in the early hours of Friday morning as the realization set in that Florida's ride had just come to a sudden end in double overtime against the Devils, who moved on to an Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with Philadelphia.

''There was sincerity in that team that you can't try for,'' said Florida coach Kevin Dineen, who helped engineer all those Panthers breakthroughs in his first season as an NHL coach. ''That comes with guys who come to the rink. They play together. And that doesn't just happen overnight. I think that starts in September. And that gives us a good future to build on.''

Of the 19 players who got on the ice in the final game for Florida this season, only five were with the Panthers a year ago, yet the group jelled quickly under Dineen. Three of the team's top four scorers this season were newcomers, Weiss - a 10-year Panthers veteran - being the only exception there. The goaltender was a new face as well, and even before he showered away the sweat from Game 7, Jose Theodore was eager for what might come next.

''For sure,'' Theodore said. ''A lot of people didn't think we were going to make the playoffs. Even less thought we'd win the division. The guys showed a lot of character. It's really looking good for the future.''

It's part of what the Panthers call ''the blueprint'' put together by general manager Dale Tallon.

Tallon assembled a team that won a Stanley Cup in Chicago before he joined the Panthers two years ago, and he's clearly moved Florida closer to hockey's ultimate goal. Before the playoffs even started, Tallon was ready to declare the season a success, and few could argue.

''A successful season is right, a winning season,'' Tallon said. ''Regardless if we hadn't gone in the playoffs, we went up 22 points over last year. And you look at my record, we want to get better every year and we exceeded expectations this year. But it doesn't surprise me knowing the character of these players that we brought in. They really care.''

The roster will see some changes, though an overhaul - like the one that brought Theodore, a Lady Byng finalist in Brian Campbell, the team's eventual leading scorer in Tomas Fleischmann, a former Florida fan favorite in Ed Jovanovski and Stanley Cup champions such as Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden - to the club for this run won't be happening.

For the first time in a while, it doesn't seem needed.

''You know, it's not an easy place to play,'' Tallon said. ''There's a lot of distractions, as everybody has said, but it's a beautiful place to play. And I'm excited for the guys that made the commitment to come here in July and the guys that have been here in the past that have gone through tough times have really been able to weather the storm and get themselves back on top.''

It was nearly 1 a.m. Friday when Versteeg walked a few steps over to Weiss' locker, the two shaking hands and sharing a quiet moment. ''Great season,'' they said to one another, not really sure what to do next.

''Obviously, we're happy about what we did,'' Versteeg said. ''It's a tough way to lose, but I'm just proud that I got to play with these guys this year. We had a great season. We tried to play our butts off every night and never give up every night and we never did. You lay it all out on the line and sometimes it doesn't happen.''

No one needs to tell Weiss that. Until this season, it had never happened for him. Nine seasons, nine early trips home, and only in Year 10 did the Florida center finally get his first taste of playoff hockey.

He expects the next one to be better.

''It's been worth the wait,'' Weiss said.

---

Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

Tagged: Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, Panthers

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