Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/8/12
SUNRISE, Fla. Brian Campbell has a message for Florida Panthers fans. You now can wear your gear proudly. For 10 straight seasons, the Panthers failed to make the playoffs. Last season, they were dead last in the Eastern Conference. But that all has changed. Helped by Campbell and several other new acquisitions, the Panthers wrapped up the Southeast Division title with a 4-1 home win over Carolina in Saturdays season finale. They now head to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 (there was no season in 2004-05 due to the lockout) as the Easts No. 3 seed, meeting No. 6 New Jersey starting Friday at 7 p.m. at BankAtlantic Center. If you told any fan from any league, 'Im a Florida Panthers fan,' theyd laugh at you, Campbell, a four-time All-Star defenseman, said of how it used to be. Maybe you didnt even say that. But now, Panthers fans are proud. They can say that. They can hold their head up and support the team. Their support was quite evident when the final horn sounded Saturday. Hundreds of rubber rats were thrown onto the ice. It was a nod back to 1996, when fans did that at Miami Arena. Thats when the surprising Panthers made the Stanley Cup Finals before losing 4-0 to Colorado. I actually said to Campbell, Its going to rain here right at the buzzer, and it did. A lot of rats, defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. It was good to see, and it definitely brought back some memories. Jovanovski is the only remaining Florida player from the 1995-96 team, although he was traded in 1999 before returning for this season as a free agent. Jovanovski came back with the hope of helping steer the Panthers back into the playoffs. Thats what happened, as the Panthers clinched their spot last Thursday. Even though Florida plays in the weakest division in the NHL and had a hardly dominant 38-26-18 record, that hardly matters to center Stephen Weiss. No Florida player has suffered longer than Weiss. He joined the team in 2001-02 and had suffered through nine straight seasons without a taste of the playoffs. Its pretty awesome, Weiss said in the jubilant Panthers locker room after Saturdays win while wearing a Southeast Division champion T-shirt. A surreal feeling. It hasnt been easy all year . This team pushed hard, but we found a way to win and win the division. Thats what we wanted to at the start of the year. The fans deserve it. They have been great through the year, and over the past 10 years or so for sticking with us. So Im happy for them. At one time, a Panthers fan was a kid in Lethbridge, Alberta, named Kris Versteeg. Not long after the team had entered the NHL in 1993, his mother gave him a Panthers T-shirt. When youre a little kid and you get to see a cool logo at time time when it came out and a cool name, and I think as a kid I enjoyed it, Versteeg said. When Versteeg was 10, the Panthers unexpectedly made the finals. He said he cheered for an underdog during those playoffs. Well, Versteeg has grown up to become a Florida wing. He said he still has that Panthers T-shirt in a closet back home and might ask for it to be sent down as Florida tries to make another surprising run at the Stanley Cup. Now, were an underdog again, and obviously I think were going to have lot of fans cheering for an underdog, Versteeg said. While having won the division gives Florida the higher seed and home-ice advantage against New Jersey, the Devils do have the better record at 48-28-6. And New Jersey enters the playoffs having won six straight while the Panthers have lost five of six. But the Panthers did slightly outplay the Devils in four regular-season meetings. They picked up five points to New Jerseys four, going 2-1-1. Its going to be a good series, said Campbell, who, along with Versteeg, won a Stanley Cup with Chicago two years ago. I feel were going to give ourselves a good chance . Im sure nobody is counting on us to win too much, and thats fine by all of us. We know we have a chance and an opportunity to win that series. No matter the odds, Campbell figures Panthers fans will be wearing their gear during the playoffs with pride. Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson
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