panthers_coach_kevin_dineen_web.jpgSUNRISE  (AP) — When the Florida Panthers were struggling down the stretch of trying to snap the longest active NHL playoff drought, those inside the locker room tried to insist everything was fine.

Turns out, the Panthers weren't being totally honest as they sputtered toward the finish line.

“It has been weighing on us,” Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. “We wouldn't say it is, but you could just tell with some of our play. We'd seem to tighten up here and there. There was a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone's shoulders.”

That pressure's gone now.

Even with just two wins in its final 10 games, Florida's 12-year postseason drought is no more.

Thanks to a 4-1 win over Carolina in the season finale, the first Southeast Division championship banner in franchise history will soon sway over the Panthers' ice, and they'll open the Eastern Conference playoffs at home Friday night against the New Jersey Devils. As if the wait for playoff hockey wasn't long enough in South Florida, the Panthers-Devils series will be the last of the eight first-rounders across the league to get started.

“You look at different snapshots of the season and there's been some highs and lows and we've gone through a stretch where we haven't had too many W's after our games recently,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “And to finish the season with one, with such importance, I think is a great satisfaction.'”

The Panthers took Sunday off, then began getting ready for New Jersey on Monday.

There's more than a few ties that bind these clubs.

Devils coach Peter DeBoer spent the past three seasons on Florida's bench, before the Panthers decided to go a different way. Florida forward John Madden won two of his three Stanley Cups with the Devils. Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen — who was in net for the division-clincher, and may get the call over Jose Theodore for Game 1 against the Devils — spent seven years in the New Jersey organization.

“I'll have a few more friends in the crowd in Florida from my time there,” DeBoer said. “But other than that, no special meaning.”

Florida and New Jersey split four games in the regular season.

“Pete's done a wonderful job this year,” Dineen said. “They've got some really entertaining players and I'm not blowing smoke, that's a good team we're going to play. So we're going to need to be at the top of our game in the playoffs to have success in Round 1.”

By now, the Panthers are usually golfing. So all this may seem like a bonus anyway.

Photo: Coach Kevin Dineen