The All-Star break is over and the Florida Panthers will begin their playoff drive tonight with an evening practice, followed by two games this week at home against divisional opponents Washington and Winnipeg, and a road game on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Six points on the line this week alone, and then next week a road game against the Capitals, giving the first four games after the break about as significant a meaning as you can get. All in all eight possible points on the line all against teams in our division, and a chance for the Panthers to again get a little separation from these teams if they play their cards right.
The schedule for the remaining part of the season is going to be absolutely brutal with 34 games in 67 nights that include seven back to back sets, 16 games in the month of March, and ending the season in the first week of April playing every other night. Conditioning, stamina, and mental capacity will be severely tested for the balance of the season with every one of these games deemded important.
The Panthers are currently tied in points with the Washington Capitals with 55, however due to actual records, the Caps find themselves in the third spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Panthers are seventh. Gone is the cushy lead that Florida had during the month of November that carried through part of December. The Panthers will play Washington four more times this season, with three games coming during the month of February. The Panthers will play the Winnipeg Jets three times over the remainder of the season, once a month. It is plainly obvious that these games and the points on the line (14) could make or break the playoff positioning of the Panthers. Oddly enough there is only one more game against state rival Tampa.
While the pressure of the season and playoffs hangs in the balance there will also be that queasy feeling of the trade deadline which is steadfastly approaching. Provided that the Panthers continue to stay in the playoff hunt as they currently are, you would have to bet that they will be buyers for the first time since the Clinton administration with Dale Tallon looking to make improvements in a couple areas. Take a look here at TSN’s TradeCentre from Sunday to see some of the names that are being discussed of players potentially on the move.
There are a number of players that could help the Panthers playoff push such as Zach Parise (a pending UFA), Tim Gleason from Carolina, Brenden Morrow from Dallas, and on and on. We can speculate all we want, but there is no doubt that competition for these players will be fierce, and the moves that we make must be calculated properly. The Panthers have a unique and tight knit dressing room of which everyone gets along swimmingly. Dale must do his homework on any player acquired, and whoever he (they) may be, will have to fit the mold of what’s been building up here. Don’t be surprised to see him look to a player like Tuomo Ruutu from Carolina, or even going back to the Chicago Blackhawks once more as their youngsters are beginning to take jobs away from a few players such as Brian Bickell. I’m not saying that he’ll go after a player like Bickell, just saying that the Hawks may have something to offer as well, as they too look to improve their roster in preparation for another run at the Stanley Cup.
First things first and that is to get off to a quick start Wednesday night against the Capitals who will be without suspended forward Alexander Ovechkin. Alex will be finishing the final game of his time off, and this could be a perfect chance for the Panthers to take advantage of a team without it’s energetic leader. It is essential for the FlashMob Line to get it going again, and deliver the success that they did in the first part of the season. Additionally goaltender Jose Theodore who probably benefited the most from this layoff regain his top form from the first half of the season as well. Erik Gudbranson and Keaton Ellerby will be asked to share the load while Ed Jovanovski and Dmitry Kulikov remain in injured reserve and out of action for the next 6 weeks. Finally, now that they are healed and back into the lineup, Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim will have to find their scoring touch and keep themselves out of the penalty box. The Panthers need these two players to contribute offensively, and not taking penalties, at the most inopportune times.
There is much on the line over the next two plus months. Everyone’s resolve will be tested in more ways than you can imagine. However for the first time in awhile the Panthers actually have a legitimate chance of seeing their dream of a post season appearance come true. Capitalizing on their games with division opponents is the key ingredient.
Buckle up fans. The rough ride is about to begin. It’s what we’ve been waiting for right?
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