Long-suffering Panthers finally on the prowl

By Frank Pingue

TORONTO (Reuters) - After being forced to loosen the purse strings and spend $30 million just to make the NHL's minimum team salary level, the long-suffering Florida Panthers have emerged as this season's surprise package.

Unlike most teams that scramble to fit players under the salary cap, Florida cleared space at last year's trade deadline and were in the odd situation of having to go on a spending spree to reach the $48.3 million salary 'floor'.

"We brought in character people who care about winning and they came in here with a purpose to get this team turned around and into the playoffs and eventually try and win a Stanley Cup," Stephen Weiss told reporters Tuesday before the team's 5-3 road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"It's kind of like a fresh start so we are excited about our team and the start we had. Now we just got to make sure we bear down and finish it off in the last quarter of the season."

With Tuesday's win, Florida opened a three-point gap at the top of the Southeast division and are currently the Eastern Conference's third seed for the playoffs.

That marks a dramatic turnaround for a team that finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season and have only made the playoffs three times since entering the NHL in 1993.

GETTING THE JOB DONE

Perhaps the biggest impact has come from the addition of right-winger Kris Versteeg, who has adapted well to his role with the Panthers and leads the team in goals (22) and points (49).

The 25-year-old, who is currently out with an injury, has breathed new life into a team that owns the NHL's longest playoff drought having not qualified in 10 seasons.

Florida hope to secure a place in the postseason as one of the Eastern Conference's three division winners and failure to win the Southeast would pitch them into a battle for one of the five remaining berths.

"It doesn't matter how we do it, wherever we are in the standings as long as we get the job done and make the playoffs," said Brian Campbell, who joined the Panthers last June and is the team's top-scoring defenseman this season.

"If you got the players that are able to do it and the coaches that guide them then you are capable of doing a lot."

The win over the Maple Leafs saw the Panthers (30-20-12) equal their victory total from last season with 20 games remaining in the regular season.

Florida will be tested the rest of the way as six of their remaining games are against divisional opponents, starting with Thursday's matchup against the Winnipeg Jets, who trail the Panthers by four points.

While experts considered the moves as minor, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said they gave the team depth and, perhaps more importantly, sent a message to the team's existing players.

"It's a great reflection on our management that they want to push the pace of the positive direction that we've been going," said Dineen.

"We need a little bit of consistency to our game but really, for us as a team and as a group of players and our organization, we want to be a relevant factor in the NHL as we move down the stretch here."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)