(AP) – There’s one last order of business to complete before the Florida Panthers can finally get this season started.
It comes Saturday night, not long before the puck drops against the Carolina Hurricanes, and it’s a moment 12 years in the making. The Panthers will pay homage to last season one more time, with the hoisting of the banner to commemorate their first Southeast Division title.
Carolina has three of those titles under its belt, but this marks a big year for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup.
Yes, the Panthers had their long-awaited breakout season. And no, winning the Southeast isn’t exactly the franchise’s ultimate goal, either.
“It’s not a Stanley Cup banner,” forward Stephen Weiss said. “And those are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day. But certainly, it was a good year for us last year. We’re proud of winning the Southeast. It’ll be nice to see the banner go up, but I’m sure it’ll be out of our minds pretty quickly and we’ll be on to the next challenge.”
Florida’s ride ended last season on home ice, in a double-overtime, Game 7 thriller against New Jersey in the first round. The Panthers (38-26-18) have been waiting to pick up where they left off ever since, first through the summer and then through the lockout that turned this season into what will be a 48-game battle of wills.
And to get back to the playoffs, there might not be much room for error. Florida earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference last season by winning the division, but only finished with 94 points – just two more than Washington and Ottawa, who took the last two spots in the playoff bracket.
“Our guys are a great group of guys,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “There’s a lot of character in our locker room and we’ve added some more. We’re adding more skill as well. It’s not going to be easy. Teams are going to be prepared for us. But the second half, we weren’t a surprise in the second half. This is a group of guys that want to win … and want to prove to the world that they can get better and go deeper in the playoffs.”
Florida returns its top four scorers in Tomas Fleischmann, Weiss, Kris Versteeg and defenseman Brian Campbell, as well as much of the core from the usual lines that coach Kevin Dineen sent out last season.
It also added a veteran who has a knack for scoring. The Panthers on Friday signed 39-year-old right wing Alex Kovalev, who has 428 goals in 1,302 career games with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Ottawa.
Kovalev last played in the NHL in 2010-11, and was with the Panthers on a tryout contract for training camp. He’s expected to be on a line with highly touted rookie Jonathan Huberdeau to open the season.
Florida is hoping it has another reliable veteran between the pipes. Jose Theodore started 51 games last season and his goals-against average was 2.46, his best in four years.
“We built something last year,” Theodore said. “We’re still far away from the ultimate goal. But last year was a start.”
The Hurricanes (33-33-16) are looking to take a significant step forward in coach Kirk Muller’s first complete season, and they spent some significant money during the offseason to help make that happen.
And no move – not even the signing of Alexander Semin – created more buzz than the blockbuster trade that reunited Eric Staal with younger brother Jordan.
“We’ve got some new faces that are really going to help our team,” Eric Staal said, “and we’d like to jell together quickly.”
For the most part, the Hurricanes skated well in four months last season under Muller, a first-time NHL head coach who took over for the fired Paul Maurice in December 2011 and led them to points in 37 of 57 games. No player blossomed under him more than Eric Staal, who played at better than a point-per-game pace under the new coach.
Now they want to keep that up for an entire season.
“Our guys have to understand the parity of the NHL is tight every night, but we have a capability that it’s not now in a situation that we’re not going to win a hockey game because we don’t have enough firepower or goaltending or whatever,” Muller said. “I think we have a strong enough group right now that every night, we should battle to try to win. … But we have to go and earn it.”
Their new faces on offense should be able to help with that. They wanted another elite forward and wound up swinging a summertime trade with Pittsburgh that landed Jordan Staal.
“Getting to play on a great team and getting to play with Eric is a really cool feeling,” he said.
Then they took a flyer on Semin, a noted nemesis from division rival Washington, by signing him to a one-year, $7 million deal. Over the years, Semin – the fifth-leading scorer in Capitals history – has totaled 27 goals and 45 points against Carolina, his most versus any team.
“He’s definitely got the skill – you know that playing against him for years now,” Eric Staal said. “I think even some nights when you don’t have it, just that threat (of Semin), he’s going to back off defenses and it’s going to give other guys opportunities. He’s one of those guys where, with his release and his shot, he’s going to be able to score a lot of goals in tight areas.”
Semin had three goals and three assists in five games against Florida while playing for Washington last season.
Florida went 5-1-0 in last season’s series, outscoring the Hurricanes 9-3 in winning all three matchups at home.