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Florida Panthers make history with Southeast Division title

Now the real celebration can begin.

After clinching a playoff spot thanks largely to circumstances beyond their control on Thursday, the Florida Panthers took total control of their destiny and left their paw prints on history in front of 19,087 ecstatic fans on Saturday night.

And they did so with their first divisional title in 19 years of the franchise's existence.

Bring on Peter DeBoer and the New Jersey Devils as the Panthers assured themselves of home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup post-season tournament.

Unlike Tuesday when the host 'Cats let a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg slip away, there was no such visitor comeback in the cards in the regular-season finale as the BankAtlantic Center became a sea of plastic rats following Florida's 4-1 victory over Carolina.

The Panthers (38-26-18) made a statement early that they intended to end their five-game losing streak and head into the playoffs on a positive note as Marcel Goc and John Madden came through with first-period goals.

Stephen Weiss, an assistant captain who has waited years for this magical moment, extended the cushion to 3-0 with a second-period tally.

Joni Pitkanen cut the deficit to 3-1 with a power-play goal midway through the third period, but Mikael Samuelsson's empty netter sealed the deal.

Ironically, the Devils were Florida's opponent in the first round of the 1999, 2000 playoffs, which was the last time the Panthers played after the first week of April.

Florida knows its opponent, and Sunday it will know its schedule as the National Hockey League releases the specific dates of the New Jersey series


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