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Posted on Sat, Jan. 07, 2006

PANTHERS

Panthers shed 'same old' label

Since veteran Joe Nieuwendyk sharply criticized his team a month ago, the Panthers have gone from cellar dweller to playoff contender.

BY GEORGE RICHARDS

grichards@MiamiHerald.com

 

NEW YORK - As the season approached, the marketing arm of the Florida Panthers decided to focus its ad campaign on the squad's many newcomers.

 

''It's A Whole New Team!'' ads and billboards screamed.

 

But once the season got under way, they should have been changed to ``Same Old Panthers!''

 

A team that hasn't been to the postseason since 2000 seemed destined to miss out again.

 

After a listless loss to a struggling Kings team in Los Angeles on Dec. 10, 39-year-old center Joe Nieuwendyk came into the team's dressing room and unleashed almost two months of frustration.

 

''It's the same old story,'' he said, his eyes staring straight ahead. ``We're so far away it's not even funny. I'm sure everyone wants to win, but there's a preparation and a price that goes with that. We don't make that commitment night in and night out.

 

``It's frustrating. You have to be determined to turn things around. Until we all look ourselves in the mirror and make the commitment, it's not going to happen.''

 

A three-time Stanley Cup winner, Nieuwendyk has been on one losing team in what likely is a Hall of Fame career. He certainly didn't want to waste the twilight of his career.

 

Maybe he won't.

 

Although the Panthers don't appear to be a Stanley Cup challenger, they have been able to pull themselves back into the playoff race. Entering Florida's home game against Nashville on Dec. 13, the Panthers were 13 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Now the Panthers are four points behind Montreal for eighth place.

 

''If you'd told me we'd be at this position at the beginning of the year, I'd be disappointed,'' defenseman Sean Hill said this week. ``But if you told me would be where we were a month ago and then got to this point, I would be pretty happy.''

 

Nieuwendyk's firestorm seemed to do some good. Instead of dancing around the issues surrounding an underachieving team, Nieuwendyk put it in the open, knowing his reputation and work ethic would save him from retribution.

 

When Nieuwendyk spoke, the Panthers listened.

 

''He's proven in the past what kind of player he is,'' forward Serge Payer said. ``He's a determined player who has put the pain aside. It shows you what kind of a leader he is. He's the kind of guy you look up to and want to follow his footsteps.''

 

http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/13571568.htm

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