For just the sixth time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers are a playoff team. Which is not an achievement many predicted for them prior to this NHL season.
"We knew what kind of character we had in the room. What kind of players we were. That's just outside noise we didn't need to listen to," said forward Frank Vatrano, who had the game-winning goal in Florida's 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, sealing the postseason berth. "We didn't listen to that stuff at the beginning of the season. And now we're in the playoffs."
Florida last made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2016, losing in the first round to the New York Islanders. The Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1995-96, when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Colorado. Since entering the NHL as an expansion team in 1993-94, the Panthers have made only six playoff appearances -- not counting their qualification-round loss to the Islanders in last summer's expanded postseason in Toronto.
Coach Joel Quenneville said that the low expectations for the Panthers worked in their favor.
"There's nothing wrong with being the underdog. There's nothing wrong when you're up against it and nobody gives you the time of day. There's nothing wrong when you're underappreciated, and maybe some nights the other team is not as excited playing that game. But we did what we had to do," he said. "We get a lot of respect [from other teams] because we play hard. It's a hard two points. That's a compliment to our team. Everybody in our division thinks we're ready to play."
The Panthers entered the game against the host Predators needing a win to clinch a playoff spot in the Central Division. They rallied three times to defeat Nashville, as forward Jonathan Huberdeau had two goals and three assists. Rookie goalie Spencer Knight stopped all nine shots he faced after replacing starter Sergei Bobrovsky (four goals on 21 shots) to begin the third period.
Florida is second in the division with 69 points, two points in back of first-place Carolina, which has two games in hand.
"It's great, especially with all the sacrifice we made this season. With how tough it's been," Vatrano said. "You spend a lot more time around the rink than you usually do. You come in every day, around the guys all the time. You could get sick of each other sometimes, but it really brought us together."
The Panthers are in line to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round, in what would be the first playoff meeting ever between the Florida teams.