A big second half from Versteeg will go a long way to a Panther playoff berth. Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

A Look Ahead To What Awaits the Panthers In The Second Half Of The Season

Thirty-four games.

That’s how many games the Florida Panthers have to make their final push to make the postseason for the first time since 2000. I think even the most die hard of Panthers fans would’ve had a difficult time believing you had you told them back in September that the Cats would own a record 22-15-11 with 55 points and sitting tied for first in the Southeast Division but, that’s where things are as the ‘second half’ of Florida’s season begins Wednesday.

The good news for the second half is there won’t be any games against the New York Rangers who have given the Panthers nothing but a hard time in the season series, winning three of the four games. Also, there is only one contest against these playoff teams (playoff teams as of the All-Star break anyway) the rest of the way: Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings.

The even better news is that there are 12 divisional games left on the schedule, where the Cats have been superb this season, going 7-3-2, including two wins each over the Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes and a 1-1 split so far with Washington. Of the remaining 12, four of the contests will come in the next four contests and they’ll close the season with three games against the Southeast. The home and road games are split evenly at six games each.

Not many games left against the Western Conference but, they won’t be easy ones. In addition to the aforementioned Red Wings and Kings, the Panthers have home and road games against the always-tough Nashville Predators and the surprising Minnesota Wild to go along with the suddenly resurgent Anaheim Ducks. Thankfully, the schedule also includes games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers, the two worst teams record-wise in the West. Nothing in this league is a ‘gimme’ but it sure beats playing the Blackhawks or Blues.

Eleven games remain between Florida and the team’s that currently sit the remaining seven playoff spots in the East. That means outside of those games and the games against the West, the Panthers have 15 games remaining against Eastern teams NOT in the playoffs. Good teams, playoff teams in any sport, always take care of business against the teams they are SUPPOSED to beat. And if the projections that the Panthers will need 19-20 more wins to have enough to qualify for the playoffs are true, getting wins in a majority of those games will go a long way to getting there. But, of course, the Panthers can’t take any team for granted from here on out. It’s one of the oldest cliches in sports, but you see it season after season as teams with ‘nothing left to play for’ rise up when there isn’t anything at stake for them and spoil things for the contending team. And who knows what some of these teams will even look like after February 27th’s trade deadline. Look no further than last year’s Panthers, who were little more than a speed bump for teams over the season’s final weeks following a deadline dismantling.

While that’s a lot of numbers, the bottom line is this: If the Panthers can get back to playing like they were in November/early December, they’ll make the playoffs, especially with the way the schedule sets up. But, they can’t keep going allowing games to go to overtime/shootout especially, against teams from their conference and division. Not being able to win in regulation is the only thing that’s made the race in the Southeast as close as it is. What the fix for that is anybody’s guess. At the beginning of the season, this team had a knack of scoring the clutch goal to win in regulation (wins against Pittsburgh and Jersey, for example) but that’s been missing for over a month. Getting that back will be the difference between going to playoff games at the Bank Atlantic Center or looking ahead to the draft and free agency.

Thanks to @jackdpmjd on Twitter for the story suggestion.

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