TORONTO - The longest active playoff drought in the NHL is looking increasingly likely to be broken.
The Florida Panthers easily handled the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 on Tuesday as the Southeast Division leaders remain on pace to qualify for their first post-season since 2000.
Florida finished last in the Eastern Conference last season and second last in 2009-10—and 28th overall both seasons.
The Panthers made major changes last summer, introducing new GM Dale Tallon, new coach Kevin Dineen and a radical roster overhaul that included the signing of a dozen free agents.
The results through three-quarters of the NHL schedule have been promising. With a 30-20-12 record, they've already matched the 72 points they managed last season when they went 30-40-12.
“When you’ve got a history as an organization (of not making the playoffs), you’ve got to acknowledge that," said Dineen, a rookie coach in the NHL. "It makes it that much more special that we're in the playoff race this season.”
Florida's win over Toronto was its third consecutive victory, an encouraging sign considering that it's coming on the heels of a four-game season-high slide (0-3-1).
“It’s so close in the standings," said Panthers centre Mike Santorelli, who scored twice against the Leafs. "Each game is so important. And we’ve got another divisional game coming up.”
The Panthers visit Winnipeg on Thursday, with Florida (72 points), Washington (69) and the Jets (68) battling for first place in the Southeast. The team that wins the division is guaranteed the No. 3 seed in the East–and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s a lot of fun playing meaningful games at this time of year," said Stephen Weiss, who's been a Panthers regular since 2002.
"That’s what hockey is all about ... especially with all the new guys and the way we’ve come together and play hard for each other. It’s great.”
For Weiss, the turnaround must be especially sweet. The 28-year-old—drafted fourth overall in 2001—has played a franchise-record 617 NHL games without ever experiencing the post-season.
“He’s been our leader and he’s a great teammate," Santorelli said. "You just want to follow him into the playoffs.”
Goaltender Jose Theodore, one of the dozen free agents signed last summer, said qualifying for the post-season has been Florida's mission since Day 1.
“That’s our goal,`` said Theodore, who stopped 28 shots Tuesday to improve to 17-11-6 on the season. ``We have a lot of veterans here, a lot of guys who know what we have to do.
"We set our standards high in training camp and we’ve stuck to them.”
As a result the Panthers, who shocked the hockey world by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 1996 as a third-year expansion franchise, might be on the verge of creating some new springtime memories.
"We’ve got character people in this dressing room, and we want to turn this team around,”Weiss said.“I’m happy to be part of it.”