SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - There were smiles, hugs and back slaps all around in the Florida Panthers' locker room.
The Panthers clinched the first division title in franchise history, getting first-period goals from Marcel Goc and John Madden and 34 saves from Scott Clemmensen to beat the Carolina Panthers 4-1 and wrap up the Southeast crown on Saturday night.
With the victory, the Panthers could celebrate their entry into the playoffs on a winning note, and at the end they embraced in front of their net and raised their sticks. This time, it wasn't to wave goodbye to their long-suffering fans, who have waited since 2000 for the Panthers to make the playoffs.
Stephen Weiss - who's headed to the playoffs for the first time after making his NHL debut with the Panthers 10 years ago - also scored for Florida, which clinched the No. 3 seed and will play sixth-seeded New Jersey in the opening round.
``Pretty awesome,' said a tired but elated Weiss, sporting a Southeast Division championship shirt and hat. ``It's a surreal feeling, it hasn't been easy all year and it wasn't easy tonight. That team pushed hard but we found a way to win and win the division, which is what we wanted.'
Mikael Samuelsson added an empty-net goal with 1:24 left.
Joni Pitkanen scored and Brian Boucher made 22 saves for Carolina, which finished 12th in the Eastern Conference with 82 points.
The Panthers needed to get a point to wrap up the division after Washington beat the New York Rangers earlier Saturday. By the time the Capitals' game went final, Florida already had a 3-0 lead.
And unlike Tuesday against Winnipeg, this one stayed safe.
The Panthers came in on a season-high five-game losing streak, but jumped out quickly to take control. Goc scored at 4:02 of the first, and Madden - brought in to give the Panthers plenty of veteran playoff experience - connected for his third of the season at 6:43 of the opening period.
``For us to score two goals right off the bat, it gives you the margin of error that you're looking for, especially for this big game for us here,' Clemmensen said.
Weiss scored a power-play goal at 10:06 of the second to make it 3-0. Mikael Samuelsson fired a shot from the point that was blocked but Weiss put in the rebound on Boucher's stick side for his 20th goal of the season - the fourth 20-goal season for Weiss and third in a row.
``It's a great feeling to be in the playoffs and to finish it off tonight at home, with our last home game not going the way we wanted against Winnipeg, that was tough to swallow, but this was in front of our home fans,' Weiss said. ``They deserve it. They've been great throughout the year and over the last 10 years sticking with us. I'm happy for them.'
The Hurricanes made it 3-1 on Pitkanen's power-play goal at 8:26 of the third. The Hurricanes won the faceoff and Pitkanen's slap shot from the point got past Clemmensen.
For Florida, it's about winning now, with the first playoff games for the franchise since 2000 now looming.
``It wasn't given, that's for sure. That's been an earned title,' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
For Carolina, Saturday was about a glimpse of the future.
``We've got some guys unhappy we didn't make the playoffs so that's good, that hunger is there,' Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. ``They played hard and we've got a good core of guys here we've got to keep building on.'
Highly touted Carolina forward Jeremy Welsh made his NHL debut. Welsh was signed not long after his college season ended Thursday night when Union lost to Ferris State in the Frozen Four semifinals in Tampa. The Hurricanes presented him with a contract shortly after that game, and Welsh signed it in time to make the 4-hour drive across the state and join his new NHL club for its finale.
``I just tried to stay calm. I wasn't letting everything creep in, a lifetime of work to get here,' Welsh said. ``When I board the plane and head home it will probably hit me.'
The Panthers will open at home against New Jersey. Dineen indicated the game will probably be Thursday.
``Playoffs are up and down and whoever can stay level throughout the series is going to have a great chance of winning,' said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks before this season and has made the playoffs seven straight years. ``Nice to get to this spot again. It's a long season and this is where the fun starts. We're looking forward to getting this place rockin' come game one.'
NOTES: The NHL plans to release the full playoff schedule Sunday. ... Carolina missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved