Home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs is likely something the Panthers can only look toward if they protect their division lead. Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Panthers' Possible First Round Match-ups: Best And Worst Both From Tri-state

 

If the regular season ended today, the Florida Panthers would find themselves in the opening round of the playoffs via their leading spot in the Southeast Division. Even if they didn’t hold the division advantage over the Caps, their current points total would be enough to sneak them to the promised land as the 8th seed. As the Cats enter the haul of their final 26 games, a playoff berth seems more like a reality than a fantasy to the fans who haven’t experienced this in over a decade. With that reality, I can’t help but speculate some possible first round scenarios.

The Panthers have virtually dominated both the Winnipeg Jets and the New York Islanders so far this season, but neither of the two find themself in the playoff picture right now. If the season ended today, the eight teams that would make it in are (in order): the Rangers, Bruins, Panthers, Flyers, Penguins, Devils, Senators and Maple Leafs. Florida would be set to face New Jersey, which is actually the team I think the Panthers would have the best odds of advancing against.

Allow me to note that I am mentally blocking out the fact that the last time the Panthers were in the playoffs, the Devils swept them in the first round. More than enough time has passed since then to dig up any relevancy from that bout. This year, the two teams split the season series, but the Cats got a point in three of the four games. Their largest margin of defeat was the third game on the road in early January when they fell 5-2, though two of the Devils’ five goals came by way of an empty net. That game was also the only one in which Martin Brodeur did not start, and aside from one shootout loss, the Panthers have fared well against him this year.

The scoring in the series was neck and neck, with the Devils holding the overall 12-11 edge.  If these two met in the first round, Devils head coach Pete DeBoer would enjoy nothing more than winning in the postseason against the organization that let him go not even a year ago. The Panthers by no means would lack motivation of their own, and I think if the team was healthy, they would have the tools necessary to get the job done.

My belief is that the Rangers would present the Cats with the most problems if they played each other in the first round. This is a relatively easy conclusion to arrive at and for more reasons than just the Rangers having the best record in the East. The Panthers lost the season series 3-1, and they mustered their lone win by only a one-goal margin on the day before Thanksgiving.

The Rangers handed the Panthers’ one of their most embarrassing losses of the season less than a month later at the Garden, in a game that was already 6-1 in favor of New York after two periods. The final two games were 4-1 and 3-2 losses, respectively, meaning the Panthers only scored a total of six goals in four games against the Rangers.

Henrik Lundqvist started in all but the last of the four and collectively beat the Panthers 11-4. The leading Vezina candidate has stood on his head practically all season with a 1.77 GAA, and I can’t imagine his exceptional play would falter any in the playoffs. Even in the one game the Panthers beat the Rangers, Lundqvist still stopped 36 shots and kept the game tight.

New York is also loaded with offensive threats in Derek Stepan, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, etc., all of whom have proven to have the Panthers’ number this year. If the Rangers maintain the 1-seed in the East and the Panthers end up falling to the 8th spot, I will be much less optimistic than I would be in pretty much any other potential storyline.

Thanks for reading! Who do you think would match up best and/or worst against the Cats in the playoffs? Let us know in the comments.

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