Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 4/12/12

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. -- No disrespect intended by any means, but the Florida Panthers aren't really looking for anyone's respect or approval at this point in the season.

Or to be more clear, this point in the postseason.

Few in the media believed in Florida, who clinched its first divisional title by winning the Southeast in a 4-1 victory over Carolina last Saturday, but the critics have been vocal. TSN's Craig Button started it by slamming Florida for trading for Brian Campbell, who has been the backbone of the team, then acquiring Tomas Kopecky, who has been masterful on the penalty-kill and is currently playing his best hockey. Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and others chimed in on later moves with their special blend of criticism, which was peppered with plenty of disdain and chunks of doubt.

Barry Melrose was one of the few in the Panthers' corner, picking them to be his "surprise" team. He liked the team's speed and tenacity, plus the coaching style of Pete DeBoer. That's right, DeBoer, because Melrose made that prediction in October of 2010 right before last season began. Now, how Melrose could view last year's Panthers as a breakout team yet most widely criticized this season's group is a mystery. The current squad is better coached, clearly has much better skill and usually puts forth a full 60-minute effort, which usually extends to 65 then a shootout.

A quick glance at New Jersey and Florida's statistics doesn't really favor the No. 3-seeded Panthers. New Jersey has performed better than Florida in most categories. Goals for, goals against, goal differential, penalty kill (a record-setting PK, no less), shorthanded goals. Heck, the Devils will suit up three skaters whose total goals eclipse Tomas Fleischmann's Panthers-best 27. And don't forget the all-time wins of that Hall of Fame goalie over there.

But one number stands out: 128. That's the amount of days the Panthers spent looking down on the Southeast Division in a six month-long game of King of the Hill. And that time at the top breeds confidence.

"A lot of people have overlooked that, but it's a long time to hang on and be on top," said center John Madden, who scored the game-winner against Carolina. "Look at all the other teams around the league. They've had their time up, down, up, down. We've hung in there for a lot of the season. It's a credit to the guys in this dressing room."

So as they prepare to host Game 1 after a 12-year playoff drought, forgive the Panthers if they don't really care whether or not fans, media or even you have no faith in them hanging with, competing against or -- heaven forbid -- coming out on top in this quarterfinal series against the Devils. They have more important things to worry about -- winning.

But Florida's already victorious in one battle -- the fight for relevance -- because hockey is now important again in South Florida and the Panthers are a player in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Regardless of what the critics say.

Photo Credit: Getty Images
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