Florida headed to Stanley Cup playoffs, 2nd time since 2000

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Jaromir Jagr hasn't been clean-shaven in a while. It's likely no coincidence that the same can be said about Jonathan Huberdeau, his Florida Panthers' linemate.

Put simply, if Jagr does something, the Panthers notice.

And that will especially ring true starting next week, when the long-struggling Panthers return to the playoffs for just the second time in the past 15 seasons. Florida's postseason berth was clinched Sunday when Boston lost to Chicago, and the Panthers now find themselves on the brink of securing home-ice advantage for at least the opening round.

''We're going to rely on him,'' Huberdeau said, nodding toward where Jagr was standing after Florida rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Montreal 4-3 on Saturday night. ''Not too much, but he's going to be the guy to look up to and he's going to be the guy to help us - especially those of us who don't know what it's like.

''It's his 18th time in the playoffs. My first time. He's not scared of the playoffs.''

The Panthers have played 38 postseason games, total, as a franchise. They've won 16, and it's the first trip to the playoffs for young Panthers stars such as Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad.

What will Jagr tell the first-timers?

''I'm not going to make a big deal about it,'' Jagr said. ''Just play the same way. Why stress yourself if you don't have to? No matter what you say, you have to go through it. You have to feel it.''

Jagr has played in 202 playoff games, has been part of 110 wins and is a two-time Stanley Cup winner - both of those hoists of hockey's chalice coming before the Panthers' franchise even played its first game.

There's other Cup winners on Florida's roster, including injured captain Willie Mitchell (whose career is in jeopardy because of concussions), defenseman Brian Campbell, wingers Shawn Thornton and Jiri Hudler and injured forward Dave Bolland.

But if one skater will set the tone in the second season for Florida, it's Jagr.

''That's no different than what he's doing now,'' Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. ''He does a good job with our guys, he's our leader and we've got a lot of good veteran leadership. I don't expect him to change one thing. We've got a lot of guys who have won Stanley Cups, a lot of veteran guys and a lot of young guys who haven't tasted it yet.''

How they'll fare in the playoffs is anyone's guess, but these are not the same old Panthers.

Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996, making the Stanley Cup final that year but getting knocked out in the first round in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

It took general manager Dale Tallon - who is credited for building the core of the Chicago team that has won three of the past six Stanley Cups - time to get a real plan in place for Florida, but his moves have clearly worked.

The Panthers set club records this season with a 12-game winning streak, four All-Star representatives, five 50-point scorers and 44 victories. With four games left, they're on pace to have the best team goals-against average in franchise history as well.

But the biggest key was the trade that brought Jagr to Florida late last season.

''There's so many doubters about our team and it's fine with us,'' Jagr said. ''We're still a young team. There's very old guys on this team and very young guys. Nobody ever gives us any credit, even when we won 12 straight and it's fine, it doesn't really matter.

''But especially in this conference when you have 16 teams and only eight make the playoffs, it's a matter of one or two games between making it and not making it.

''The whole season long, you have to play playoff hockey. That's the only way.''

That's what Florida has done. The playoffs start April 13, though Florida likely cannot be at home that night because a concert was scheduled for its home arena that date.

Most years, that wouldn't be a problem.

Now, it's a nice problem for the Panthers to have.

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