The Florida Panthers are heading to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, but they have their sights on an even more long-awaited prize.
The Panthers will try to wrap up their first division title in franchise history in Saturday night's season finale against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes.
Florida (37-26-18) ended the league's longest playoff drought and one of the longest among the four major North American sports leagues when Buffalo lost to Philadelphia on Thursday.
"It's been tough," said center Stephen Weiss, who has spent all 10 seasons with the franchise. "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 at the same time you only get so many years to play, and you want to try and play playoff hockey and win Stanley Cups. I'm excited to get my first taste."
The Panthers, though, once again failed to clinch the Southeast Division title with a 4-2 loss to second-place Washington on Thursday. That defeat left Florida two points ahead of the Capitals, who hold the tiebreaker and are attempting to win a fifth straight division crown.
To end Washington's reign atop the Southeast, the Panthers need at least one point against the Hurricanes (33-32-16) or a Capitals loss at the East-leading New York Rangers on Saturday.
"We've got one more game, and we know what's at stake," veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "It would be nice to put a banner in our building. I think any time you win a division, you have to be proud of that. If someone told me at the beginning of the year that it was going to come down to the last game, I'd take it."
Florida enters the game on a season-high, five-game skid but has earned a point in three of those defeats. The Panthers are also 1-3-5 in their last nine, but a visit from Carolina might provide a jump start for the playoffs.
Florida has won four of the five matchups this season, including the two at the BankAtlantic Center. The Hurricanes, though, prevailed 3-1 during the most recent meeting March 21.
Eric Staal scored a pair of goals on Jose Theodore in that win, but Theodore stopped 34 shots during a 2-0 victory in Florida on March 11. Tomas Fleischmann scored one of his team-best four goals against Carolina in that win.
The Panthers' leading scorer has seven goals and seven assists over his last 15 games. He'll try to add to that total against a Carolina team trying to end the season on a positive note despite a third straight postseason absence.
With goaltender Cam Ward's help, the Hurricanes have won both their games this month. Ward stopped 30 shots and all three shootout attempts in a 2-1 victory over Montreal on Thursday and made 38 saves in a 2-1 win in Ottawa on Tuesday.
"You don't want to take your foot off the gas just because we're out of the playoffs," Ward said.
Staal will try to help the Hurricanes play the role of spoiler by continuing his recent success against Florida. The Carolina captain and leading scorer has six goals and four assists over his last 10 matchups.
Staal, though, doesn't have a point in his last three overall contests after recording nine in his previous seven games.
Staal will have a new teammate up front for the finale. The Hurricanes signed Union College forward Jeremy Welsh to a one-year deal just after Welsh's team lost in Thursday's Frozen Four.
He'll debut Saturday before heading back to campus to finish classes.
"I want to see him play, and I'm sure he'll get some good ice time," coach Kirk Muller said.