It was most fitting that, as not only the NHL’s southernmost teams but ones at the bottom of the league standings, the Panthers and Lightning officially closed the book on the Southeast Division (circa: 1998-2013) on Saturday night.
Although it might not be remembered long by haughty league historians or, well, most anyone else, the Panthers won the final Southeast Division game by beating the Lightning 5-3 in the season finale for both at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
With little on the line, Saturday’s spotlight was on Lightning scorers Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos as they jockeyed for the league scoring title.
St. Louis won the title by scoring once and assisting on another to end with 60 points. Stamkos ended with an assist to finish with 57 points.
The Panthers ended with a little pride as they finished this brutal season ranked dead last in the 30-team NHL but with wins in two of the final three.
Jonathan Huberdeau finished his rookie-of-the-year campaign on a high note by assisting on three goals to claim the freshman scoring title.
“They worked hard. We got a snapshot of our potential [Saturday] and got a gritty effort,” said coach Kevin Dineen, who led Florida to the division title in his first season behind the bench last year.
“We got some real timely plays. It was good to get that comeback, show some belief and keep pushing in the right direction.’’
With realignment coming to the league next season, Florida and Tampa Bay will remain together, although they’ll be heading deeper north more frequently in what could be called the Snowbird Division.
The Lightning and Panthers join Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa in 2013-14.
Washington won the division for the seventh time in the 14-year history, which was highlighted by Stanley Cup championships by the Lightning and Carolina. Florida, like Atlanta, won the division just once.
“I think we’re looking at a much tougher division when you look at who is coming and who we’re going to be playing against,” Brian Campbell said of moving divisions next year. “It’s going to be an even bigger challenge for us.”
On Saturday, the Lightning took a 2-0 lead in the opening period before Nick Bjugstad notched his first NHL goal in his 11th game near the close of the first.
“We fought back and played hard at the end. That was good,” Bjugstad said. “If I didn’t score in 11 games, it would have been a long summer. I didn’t even think about that shot; I just put it on net.”
Florida tied it early in the second on Tomas Fleischmann’s first of two goals before the Lightning made it 3-2 when St. Louis cleaned up a loose puck behind Jacob Markstrom (28 saves).
The Panthers then outscored the Lightning 3-0 in the third as Scottie Upshall, Fleischmann and Marcel Goc all scored within a span of 14 minutes to put the Lightning away. Goc’s ninth of the year went into an empty net with 48 seconds left.
Jack Skille was scratched from Saturday’s game as Dineen gave Eric Selleck a second NHL game. Selleck was knocked out during a fight in his NHL debut on March 19.
Selleck came up big in the third as it was his shot that Upshall followed up on to tie it at 3 with 14:30 left.
“This last month was a long road,” Selleck said afterward. “To get in and then get a point was great. This was a great win for the boys. This gets the confidence up for me moving forward.”
Dineen said not playing Skille was “an organizational decision,” which he later explained as someone had to sit to allow Selleck to play following his concussion. “Believe me, I had a good talk with Jack,” Dineen said. “There as no message being sent.”
Skille is a restricted free agent so it’s up to the Panthers whether or not the seventh overall pick by the Blackhawks in 2005 will return.
Florida acquired Skille late in the 2010-11 season for Michael Frolik.
General manager Dale Tallon didn’t travel with the team to Tampa on Friday and stayed behind in South Florida as Sunday officially closes out the 2013 season.
Because Tallon has to be in Toronto for the draft lottery on Monday, the Panthers will hold medicals and exit interviews starting Sunday morning with the day lasting into the early afternoon. Players will be free to head home — or go anywhere they like, really — once they leave the arena on Sunday.