WASHINGTON -- The Florida Panthers clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday night for the first time since the 1999-2000 season — backing into the postseason thanks to a Buffalo Sabres' loss at the Philadelphia Flyers, while in a 1-3-5 late-season funk of their own.
"You think that bothers me?" asked Stephen Weiss.
Of course it doesn't. Because after 636 NHL games in 10 seasons, the Panthers center is headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.
"It's been tough," said Weiss, following the Panthers' 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in D.C. "You go home early in the summer, and you wonder if you're doing the right thing for yourself, for your career. You want to be loyal but you only get so many years to play. And you want to play playoff hockey and win a Stanley Cup.
"It's been a long 10 years. At the end of the day, it was worth staying. It was worth trusting Dale."
When Dale Tallon took over as the Florida Panthers' general manager in May 2010, he said his first phone call was to Weiss, a member of the team since the 2001-02 season. Weiss and Nathan Horton were two cornerstone players for the franchise, but annually missing the postseason weighed on them. Horton asked out, and eventually won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins.
Weiss stayed in Florida.
"I told [Weiss] whatever you wanna do, I'll support you. If you want to stay, I'll take care of ya. If not, we'll do that as well," said Tallon. "And he said, 'No, I believe in what you're trying to do.'"
That belief paid off on Thursday night. The Panthers played a tight game against the Capitals, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to get within one goal early in the third period. Washington outlasted them, 4-2, despite losing starting goalie Michal Neuvirth to injury, and also clinched a playoff spot by virtue of the Sabres' loss.
The Panthers were informed the Sabres lost when they entered the locker room, although the score was flashed inside the arena late in the third period. Weiss said it was still sinking in.
"It feels good. A lot of hard work. Happy for Dale and the guys who put this group together. It's been fun," he said.
"Hasn't been easy. We don't make anything easy for ourselves."
The Panthers still need to gain a point, or have the Capitals lose one, in order to clinch the Southeast Division. They face the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
"You wanna win your last game of the season. For your fans, going into the playoffs," said Weiss.
And for a Southeast Division banner? "For a title," he said. "Sounds good."
For Weiss, just making the playoffs is an accomplishment.
"I'm really proud of him, and his work ethic, and how he held this together," said Tallon.
His drought isn't the 715 games that Calgary Flames defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, his former teammate, has played without a postseason appearance. But it was long enough.
"I couldn't care less how it happened. We're in," said Weiss.