It hasn’t been easy, but for the majority of the regular season the Florida Panthers have been in the playoff picture. They can thank their division lead for the current 3-seed, but even their points total alone would be enough to get them in if the season ended today. Panthers fans have been speculating every possible “what-if” all year, but the season’s end is actually only games away now.
Of their nine remaining games, they play five more on the road and four in front of the home crowd at the Bank Atlantic Center. The Cats’ recent five game win streak was born from going undefeated in their four-game homestand that began on March 11. Next up was a mini road trip to Philadelphia and Carolina on back-to-back nights. Despite getting out-shot 36-13, they edged the Flyers 2-1 on Tuesday, but Eric Staal’s pair of goals was enough to hold off the Panthers the following night by a final score of 3-1.
Having Kris Versteeg and other key players return from injury has been monumental in winning five out of the last six. For the first time in awhile, the team is overall intact and healthy to make the final push to the postseason. Of the remaining nine games, I’d say the Panthers need to win five at the very least. Two playoff berths have already been clinched in the Eastern Conference, leaving a mere six up for the taking. Only a single point separates Washington and Buffalo in eighth and ninth, and the Sabres have gone 6-2-2 in their last 10.
The Cats still have to play (in order): Edmonton, NYI, Montreal, Minnesota, Columbus, Detroit, Winnipeg, Washington and Carolina. Without even looking far into it, they should (keyword: should) be able to relatively easily take care of the Isles, Blue Jackets, Jets and Canes. I consider Dany Heatley and the Wild the most fickle team in the NHL (going from first place in the West to… 13th). The second half of the season has not at all been good to them, as they suffered a seven game losing streak last month and still don’t have anyone on their roster with over 50 points.
The Panthers are 3-0 against the Islanders, and what’s more is that New York has only scored a whopping three goals in that entire series so far. The Cats have already swept one Eastern Conference foe in the Leafs, and there’s no reason they couldn’t finish off the Isles at home this Sunday.
They’re 3-1-1 against the Jets, but the one regulation loss was the in the most recent game and came in the form of a 7-0 blow to their confidence. Hopefully that can serve as some motivation to avenge that shut out loss and finish strong against their new “Southeast” Division-mate.
Looking down the final stretch, playing the Wings in Detroit is going to be a tough one. This is a franchise that made headlines all season by approaching and then breaking the NHL record for longest home winning streak. Not only did they win 23 straight in Hockeytown, but they have only lost five games in regulation (seven total) there all year. The Panthers are going to have to show up to that one with their A-game and then some if they want to do what few others have done this year.
Playing the Caps in Washington in their second to last game of the season is also going to be no walk through the park. Depending on how the next couple of weeks play out, this is likely one of the games that’s going to have the most pressure riding on it. With a win, the Panthers would split the season series with their biggest division rival as they’ve gone 2-3 against them up until this point. Alex Ovechkin is peaking at the right time, most recently scoring four goals in five games while he’s up to 33 on the season.
The playoffs are within reach; they have been virtually all season. At this point, all the Panthers have to do is not collapse. I don’t expect them to end the year on a nine-game win streak, but they certainly do need to make a strong showing and there’s no reason this squad that’s finally healthy again shouldn’t be able to. The offer is on the table. If the Panthers don’t do what’s needed in the final haul to grab it, it is no one’s fault but their own.
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