SUNRISE, Fla. — The Carolina Hurricanes' season came to an end Saturday, and all too soon for first-year coach Kirk Muller.
"I really wish we were waking up tomorrow and going to the rink," Muller said.
The Florida Panthers are moving on, their season still alive. The Panthers also will go into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Southeast Division champions for the first time.
A 4-1 victory over the Hurricanes at BankAtlantic Center sealed the divisional title, and a victory was needed by the Panthers after the Washington Capitals beat the New York Rangers 4-1 earlier Saturday.
Marcel Goc and John Madden scored goals in the first seven minutes of the game, and Stephen Weiss added a power-play goal in the second period. Scott Clemmensen got the job done in net for Florida (38-26-18), which last went to the playoffs in 2000.
Mikael Samuelsson scored an empty-net goal late in regulation to set off a big celebration by the long-suffering Panthers fans.
Joni Pitkanen scored on a power-play blast with 11:34 left in regulation but the Panthers had a 3-0 cushion by then. Canes captain Eric Staal picked up his 70th point of the season with an assist, and rookie Jeremy Welsh made his NHL debut, but there were few other highlights.
For the Canes, the season ends with a 33-33-16 record. It began with Paul Maurice as head coach, but a stumbling start cost Maurice his job and led to the hiring of Muller on Nov. 28.
Muller, in his first year as a head coach, went 25-20-12 in 57 games with the Hurricanes. But the Canes, after adjusting to Muller's aggressive, uptempo style -- both in practices and games -- were 20-12-10 after Jan. 1.
"I'm real excited about the group of guys we have and the way we've played," Muller said. "Yes, we've got to get better and everything, but for me there's a lot of positive things to build on."
Forward Jeff Skinner said despite the disappointment of missing the playoffs, the players are optimistic about the possibilities of next season under Muller and his staff.
"It's exciting to think about," Skinner said. "To come in halfway through the year is tough on a coaching staff, on the players. It's a tough thing to adjust to.
"I'm looking forward to everyone coming in and having the whole season to work together. We know what to expect from him. He knows what to expect from us."
Muller was hoping for a strong finish Saturday. The Canes won their home finale Thursday, topping the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in a shootout, and were looking to close the season with three straight wins.
In an interesting twist, Welsh signed to a contract Thursday after Union College lost in the semifinals of NCAA Frozen Four. He played his first NHL game two days later. centered a line with Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu.
While playing an NHL game was a thrill, while he had some scoring chances, Welsh picked up a tripping penalty barely a minute into the game. A second-period interference penalty led to Weiss' power-play goal that made it 3-0.
Brian Boucher started the final game in goal for the Canes and got little defensive help early as Goc and Madden had open looks at the net and scored.
Canes forward Patrick Dwyer missed the game because of personal reasons, but forward Andreas Nodl was able to return to the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury.