Florida clinches a playoff berth, and starts thinking bigger


MIAMI — It’s almost been a rite of spring for Jonathan Huberdeau. Another season for the Florida Panthers ends without a playoff berth, and the talk immediately turns to how next year will be different.

Next year, finally, might be here.

For just the seventh time in their 27-season history, the Panthers are going to the Stanley Cup playoffs. A 7-4 win in Nashville on Tuesday night was the official clincher, though the standings have made it evident for weeks that the postseason was going to be in Florida’s future.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Huberdeau said after just the second instance of Florida clinching a playoff berth with a victory; every other trip has been formally wrapped up based on the outcome of some other contest. “I’ve been here nine years and this is just a fun year. When you win, it makes it more fun. Every guy in the room, we know when to have fun and we know when to get serious.”

Huberdeau called this his second trip to the playoffs. Technically, it’ll be his third time in the postseason — Florida lost 3-1 in the qualifying round against the New York Islanders last summer when the NHL resumed play during the pandemic.

But his point sort of rings true as well. And if the playoff format — which remains largely unclear — is what the Panthers expect it to be, there will be postseason hockey at the team’s rink in South Florida for only the second time in Huberdeau’s career and just the third time in the last 20 years.

“We have a lot of fans that have been been loyal to us, and they didn’t have much to cheer for,” Huberdeau said. “Now, this year, it’s going to be more fun.”

It could be, anyway.

Florida’s postseason history goes like this: a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, literally nothing but first-round exits since, and not even that many of those. The Panthers have won a league-low seven playoff games since 1997; half of the rest of the NHL has won at least 10 times that many in that span. Detroit (135), Pittsburgh (122), San Jose (108) and Colorado (102) have all topped 100 since 1997, while Philadelphia and Dallas each have 99.

But this year just seems different to the Panthers, and has since the outset. With just one win in their final five games, the Panthers will be assured of posting the best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history. Aleksander Barkov should be in the Hart Trophy conversation. Joel Quenneville — a three-time Stanley Cup winner as a coach — should merit major consideration for best-coach honors as well.

“Making the playoffs was our goal,” Quenneville said. “At the beginning of the year, it’s our goal. We want to be a playoff team and we want to finish as high as we can, and then we’ll sort it out when you get to the next season. But it’s been a fun year for us as far as making some progress and being consistent in a lot of ways. And once you get into that next season, it’s a whole different animal.”

He doesn’t mean 2021-22 when he’s talking about “next season.” He means the second season. The postseason. The place where Florida usually isn’t.

Few picked Florida to be in this spot entering the season, and they’ll likely be underdogs again in the postseason. Quenneville said he doesn’t mind if that’s the case, and it’s a role the Panthers have embraced all year long.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Barkov said. “And it’s going to get a lot more fun.”

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