For the sake of the Florida Panthers’ long-term credibility, last year’s playoff berth can not be looked at as a fluke. While a first round exit at the hands of the eventual Eastern Conference champs was a disappointment, the Panthers at the least proved they were a serious threat and didn’t just sneak their way into the playoffs. Many argue that the SE Division is the weakest in the league, so their 3-seed heading into the postseason was a bit misleading (especially considering three 100+ point teams in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Jersey entered the playoffs with a lower standing).
As we well know, the Panthers were the only team the Devils faced en route to the Stanley Cup Finals to take them the full seven games. It had been 12 very long years since the franchise tasted playoff hockey, though with the off-season overhaul that brought in more new faces than old, much of the squad had experienced it elsewhere. After a wait that long, finally seeing rally towels into late April was that much sweeter. But if you look at the big picture (which can often be difficult if short-term success temporarily fogs your perception of reality), one year can’t be enough. There is no room for complacency in the NHL, and the Panthers need to do the following to get in again.
1.) Stop throwing away the extra point. The Panthers sat atop Washington, Winnipeg, Carolina and Tampa for the vast majority of the season, so was there any good reason I was nervous on the last day of the regular season? No. Washington closed out their regular season against the Rangers just minutes before the Panthers played their final game against Carolina. With their point total, the Cats were in the playoffs regardless but the combined results of these games dictated the difference between an 8-seed and a 3-seed.
Braden Holtby forshadowed his impressive playoff performance by leading the Caps to a 4-1 victory, meaning the Cats could’ve still lost their game to the Canes, as long as they did in it OT. Here enlies my point (pun intended): while the Cats did end up winning in regulation and solidifying their first division title in franchise history, it should NOT have come down to banking on one or two points. The Panthers won only one regular season game in OT thanks to Kris Versteeg in December, and they lost 11 of 17 shootouts. They led the league in OTL with 18 and it pains me to think of all the extra points lost in those meltdowns. All of these were points that could have made the last few regular season games enjoyable as opposed to stressful beyond belief. There is no excuse; close it out.
2.) Fewer early deficits. There’s no denying that the Panthers had some pretty impressive comebacks this past season. Their third period rallies that became commonplace deemed them the “Comback Cats” and while they were always exciting to watch, late game miracles can’t be relied on that often. The Cats were 13-24-6 when trailing first which is all the proof needed to conclude they need to score first, and more often. The ‘more often’ part is reflected in their -24 goal differential, as they were the only team in the conference other than Washington to make the playoffs with a goal differential in the red.
3.) Another strong start is a must. Once they were out of October, the Panthers pretty much shot to the top of the standings and with little fluctuation, stayed put for a good couple of months. It wasn’t until January/February that the situation got testy, due in part to multiple long-term injuries. Of course, there is no way to avoid the injury bug altogether, but the fact that they gave themselves plenty of cushion in the opening portion of the schedule really helped them to hang on until the end.
4.) Consistent goaltending. I’m not going to sit here and knock Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen until I’m blue in the face. There were certain games (many of which resulted in a shootout) that I wanted to do so more than anything, but there were also games that caused me to actually jump up and down praising them. For me, it’s love/hate with goalies and it has been since the (first?) Luongo era. I had 100% confidence in Louie back in those days, and the Cats haven’t given me a netminder that I’ve been able to feel that sound with since. All I can ask for out of Theodore and Clemmensen is more consistency. And maybe an occasional start out of Jakob Markstrom, depending on the situation.
Getting back into the playoffs shouldn’t be looked at as optional. As sad at is it for the Panthers’ fan base, the Cats over time have become a non-factor in a league that is filled with teams that have earned plenty of warranted appeal. One year is not going to be enough to avoid getting lost in the shadow of these teams who are assumed to be contenders year in and year out. Not trying to be greedy here, but it would also be nice to get out of the first round.
Thanks for reading. Any comments are welcomed.