It is banal to call March a make or break month for the Panthers but it is also extremely true. There is no such thing as an unimportant month in an NHL season and this is doubly true for this year’s lockout shortened season. Florida plays 16 games in March which is exactly one third of their 48 game season…so yea March is make or break. Let’s take a look at what the month has in store:
Warning: if lame puns make you cringe, then I would suggest you skip this section.
Yes the month of March has already begun and yes the Panthers have already played and lost two games but while March may have begun, Marchstrom is just around the corner. Yes thats right, with Jose Theodore tearing his groin, March is shaping up to be the month that Panther prospect Jacob Markstrom receives his first dose of consistent playing time as an NHL starting goaltender.
Markstrom was called up to the Panthers after Theodore’s injury Saturday night. It looked like Markstrom might make the start Saturday against Carolina but while Markstrom made it to South Florida on time, his equipment did not. With all his gear intact, Markstrom looks ready to assume the starting role for the Panthers. Panther fans have seen glimpses of Markstrom in the NHL, most recently the two games he started in late January, but the injury to Theodore makes Markstrom “the guy”.
Markstrom has the chance to prove that he deserves to be in the NHL for good. GM Dale Tallon would certainly love for him to do so. Markstrom playing well would mean the Panthers would finally know what they have in the talented Swede and could move forward with him as their number one goalie. The team would not have to worry about signing veteran stop-gap goalies such as Theodore and Clemmensen, and the pesky Roberto Luongo rumors would finally be put to rest. The rumors appeared to be dead and buried, but rose like zombies after Theodore’s injury.
Jacob Markstrom has an opportunity to shore up the Panthers porous goaltending. At the very least, he cannot do much worse than the incumbents as the Panthers rank dead last in the NHL in goals allowed.
The Panthers are turning from the team of the present to the team of the future right before our very eyes. A result of all the injuries is, a lot of players that are a part of Dale Tallon’s “blue-print” for the future are currently receiving minutes for the Panthers. While it was expected that Jonathan Huberdeau would be with the team, other players like Drew Shore, Colby Robak, and Jacob Markstrom were expected to play mostly with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL. Robak and Markstrom being with the team is indicative of how things have gone this season for Florida i.e. not well, but if they make an impact, it will be even more indicative of the bright future that lies ahead for the Panthers.
Throw Erik Gudbranson into the mix and you have a lot of young talented players logging a lot of ice time for an NHL team. It is also very impressive how quickly rookies Huberdeau and Shore have grown into go-to guys for the Panthers. In last nights loss, head coach Kevin Dineen repeatedly tried to matchup his line of Huberdeau-Shore-Mueller with Carolina’s top trio consisting of Semin-Staal-Tlusty. Anyone watching the game could tell the Panthers were getting the better of that matchup as Florida dominated possession. It will be interesting to see the further development of the Panther youngsters throughout the month of March.
Injuries, Injuries, Injuries:
Jose Theodore is out, possibly for the season. Dmitry Kulikov? Out. Ed Jovanovski? Out, and will miss at least another week. Kris Versteeg? Out. Supposedly close to returning. Scottie Upshall? Was out, came back Saturday played four minutes and is now out again. Mike Weaver? Out. Sean Bergenheim? Out, possibly done for season and career as a Panther possibly over, but at least he’s getting paid. Stephen Weiss? Ou…what’s that? he’s playing?? Sorry I just saw that he was making zero impact on the team an assumed he was out. Anyway, you get the picture, injuries have been and will continue to be an issue for the Panthers.
While injuries have been an issue, I don’t think they are the reason for Florida’s poor play. Before Weaver, Kulikov and Theodore went down, the Panthers had been relatively full strength. They have been missing Jovo, Versteeg and Upshall but I think Versteeg was the only player the Panthers really missed dearly. I would argue that the six defenders Florida was rolling out pre-Kulikov/Weaver injuries were all better than Jovanovski at this point in his career. And Upshall? Isn’t this the role the Panthers signed Upshall to fill, the promising and skilled but always injured role? Was Florida really missing the .19 points per game he produced for them last year?
How the team deals with the most recent batch of injuries will be interesting to see. Losing Kulikov and Weaver legitimately hurts the team. Will Robak and Nolan Yonkman be able to step up? Only time will tell.
- The month of March will feature the Panthers play 16 games. Seven home games and nine road games. The Panthers will play seven games against divisional foes and nine against teams from the rest of the Eastern Conference.
- Their schedule picks up a minuscule amount. Prior to March, Florida has played 20 games in 40 days or .5 games per day. In March the Panthers have 16 games in 31 days or .52 games per day. Annnnd this means?? Absolutely nothing.
- Florida will have three back to backs in the month of March (they already played one of them, losing both games to Carolina). The Panthers play in Washington March 7th before flying home to play the Jets the next night. The last back to back comes on the road March 23-24 against the Devils and the Islanders. The Panthers are 1-2 in the first games of their back to backs thus far this season and 0-3 in the second games.
- The Panthers have their longest road trip of the season in March, a five games in eight days trip March 19-24.
By about mid-March, many questions about the Panthers will have been answered. We should know by then if the Panthers have a legitimate shot at the playoffs or if they will be a bottom feeder team the rest of the season. We will know if Jacob Markstrom is ready to be an NHL goalie and we should have a better idea of what Colby Robak brings to the table.
It will be a hockey packed month and we will be sure to cover it all! Don’t miss out!