With the run the Florida Panthers have been on since the All-Star break, the discussion of making the playoffs has seemingly titled towards what’s going to happen when the Panthers get there, because no team that goes on a run like they have can miss the playoffs, right?
But even though as of this writing they sit three points behind New Jersey with two games in hand for the second wild card spot, there is still every chance that this run ends nowhere but ninth place in the East. In case that does happen, what does it mean for this season, and what does it say about the Panthers going forward?
What it will say is that in order to make the postseason, you can’t start a season 7-11-2, which is how the Panthers stumbled out of the blocks in October to mid-November. Even after a fairly decent December (mostly due to a five game winning streak to end the month), they were 19-22-6 at the All-Star break.
It sure looked like the Panthers had dug themselves too deep of a hole, and were destined for the Dahlin Derby. Very few teams not in playoff position at Thanksgiving ever have a prayer of making it. Certainly not the Panthers, who had the second fewest points in the East at Thanksgiving at 18 and only 44 at the All-Star break.
Florida has been helped by a favorable schedule of a ton of home games plus games in general, allowing them to continue to build momentum once they got hot. It helps that Bob Boughner’s last-ditch line juggling worked to perfection, as has been mentioned here before, and the team certainly looks more comfortable with the systems than ever before.
But, this is still a team with notable roster deficiencies and has been missing Roberto Luongo for more than half of the year; there was every reason to believe that even if they started playing better and their process started to improve, the results might not come until next year. But in the parity laden NHL, the Cats found their way to surge.
But what happens if that surge, the second best in the NHL since the All-Star break behind the presumptive President’s Trophy winners from Nashville, leaves them just a few points short? Aside from it saying that starting slow can’t happen next year, it shows that the team has certainly found its stride, even if it leads to nothing more than big hype for next season.
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They’d be the NHL’s equivalent of Jimmy Garoppolo’s San Francisco 49ers, who were outright garbage before he took over as a starter, but with him, they went unbeaten and now have major expectations on their heads.
Florida would be in much the same boat, with no major players leaving and no cap issues to fend off and the small additions of Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett to the lineup adding more depth to a team that has seemingly found it out of nowhere. The East is far better than it was, but with a favorable Atlantic division below them, they’d only need one or two teams to slightly underachieve and they’d potentially be a playoff lock.
That is, if they find a way to translate this level of hockey throughout an entire season instead of just a three-month spurt. That’s easier said than done of course, but as the Panthers have been the 14th best team at even strength score adjusted Corsi according to Puck On Net, ahead of multiple teams in playoff contention along with them are Philly, New Jersey and Washington. So long as they can play like that throughout a longer stretch, this crazy run they’ve needed just to have a chance won’t be needed in the same way next year.
To miss the playoffs, and a potential first round date with the Lightning, would be sad and frustrating especially since it’s hard to look back at Panthers history and find a more entertaining run of form, but this is by no means a team at its last burst before a rebuild.
It’s a team who the best of expectations would have had in playoff contention in March, but not much beyond that. They’ve already exceeded expectations, and will come back next year even younger and deeper.
So while missing the playoffs would feel like a major buzzkill if it happened, what it indicates for the Panthers’ future would be no different if they went out in five games against Tampa. They’re already a team on a meteoric rise, and that won’t be changing. They seem to have found themselves, and what they’ve found is something that can be sustainable for a long time to come.
Finishing in ninth, however annoying and frustrating it would be, won’t change that.