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Wobbly Panthers keep the faith


The Florida Panthers are one of those unfortunate "The last time they won a playoff game, the price of gas was (fill-in-the-blank)" franchises.

In the case of one of the NHL's two residents of the Sunshine State, gas averaged between $1.30 and $1.40 a gallon the last time the Panthers won a postseason match. Google was still a year away from being invented and Bill Clinton was a year into his second term as President of these United States.

It has been 10 straight seasons since the Panthers last even qualified for the playoffs, the longest current drought of any team in the league. Since beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game Eastern Conference Final in 1996, the Panthers have played 12 playoff games and lost 11 of them. Other than an April 17, 1997, victory in Game 1 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers, that's been it for Florida's postseason success.

One win in 15 calendar years.

If you're looking for signs of depression about this kind of track history, the face of Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is the wrong one to search. A man with a slight resemblance to the late actor George Peppard, Tallon favor dark suits and dark glasses but a bright disposition. This, despite a recent dip in play that has brought the Panthers back into a tie with the Washington Capitals for first in the Southeast Division after leading by a comfortable margin much of the season.

"We're hanging in there, we're getting points," Tallon says, a day after his team lost 4-3 in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche, a game in which Florida led by a goal with three minutes left in regulation. "It's not going smoothly as much right now, but we've got some injuries and we're getting some guys back. If we get through the All-Star break and get healthy, we can make a good run in the second half."

The way the Panthers started the season, the playoffs seemed like a formality. Newcomers such as Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell got off to blazing starts, making Tallon look very smart considering all the money and other personnel it took to get them. But after the loss in Denver, Versteeg, Fleischmann and Campbell had produced a combined two assists in their previous four games.

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There is that familiar sinking feeling again among the Panther die-hards, that golf will be the prime activity again come April for players and fans alike. But you don't see dread on the face of coach Kevin Dineen. One of the tougher players, pound-for-pound, of his era, Florida's rookie bench boss is ready for the second-half fight for the playoffs.

"There's some slacking in our game right now that we have to correct. But I'm not worried about being an unpredictable team," says Dineen, who spent six successful years coaching the Portland Pirates of the AHL before being named last June as the 11th coach in the often dreary history of the Panthers. "We want teams to know it's going to be a hard game against the Panthers every time we play, and now there's just areas we have to keep working on. At the end of it all, the working part is what's going to keep you staying (successful)."

Critics of Tallon's off-season spending splurge said the Panthers looked too much like a band of high-priced mercenaries, and that it was the wrong way to build a winner in the salary-cap NHL. Some of the critics maintain that opinion, seeing a team that had scored 115 goals and allowed 127 entering Friday's contest in Chicago. But its overall record was 21-14-10 (bless those three-point games), and if the playoffs had started Thursday, Florida would have been in as the eighth seed.

"You know what, we like what we have in our room," said Fleischmann, the former Capital and Avalanche winger who signed a contract that shocked many at the time (four years, $18 million), but has proven worthy so far with 34 points (15 goals) in 45 games. "We have some guys who've won Stanley Cups (Versteeg, Campbell and Tomas Kopecky in Chicago, John Madden in New Jersey and Chicago) and some other young guys who are hungry. We've only really had two games we weren't in all season."

Goaltending may be the Panthers' most worrisome area. Jose Theodore (35) and Scott Clemmensen (34) have both probably seen better days, and while 2008 second-round draft pick Jacob Markstrom is high on the list of many as a future star, he has yet to prove himself even at the minor-pro level.

Theodore, the last goalie to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, in 2002 with Montreal, has been trying for nearly 10 years to find his old success -- kind of like his new team, the fourth one he's played for since 2008.

"I want this to be the last team I play for," Theodore says. "It's not going to be my final contract, but I want it to be my final team. I feel like we have a good mix here of guys. We want to prove we're a team that is good enough to play beyond Game No. 82."

Tallon, who has shown himself unafraid of quick change, may have more trades up his sleeve by the Feb. 27 deadline. He believes he'll go into the deadline as a buyer. Not many GMs in Panthers history have been able to do that.

"The way things have gone and are going, I see the glass as half full," Tallon said. "We're not there yet, but we're getting there."