With the Florida Panthers’ schedule finally easing up, some may breathe sighs of relief, but these games are still going to be challenging for the team.
Out of the 17 games the Florida Panthers have played have played in this young season, only seven of those games have come against teams that are currently outside the playoffs. This trend will unfortunately continue, with three of their next five coming against playoff contenders.
Their next game features the first meeting of four with the defending Eastern Conference Champions in the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have shown no signs of a hangover after last season, and stand atop the Atlantic with 25 points.
This should not be a game that the Panthers fear nor accept anything less than a point. Florida are only two wins behind the B’s, which should make for an early-season clash between two teams who both have intentions for deep playoff runs. It’s a four-pointer, where the Panthers could pull within two points of Boston, or the Bruins could push six points clear.
For Florida, Sergei Bobrovsky should likely get the nod after Sam Montembeault‘s start on Sunday versus the Rangers. Montembeault struggled early on, giving up four goals in the first two periods, but bounced back with a stellar performance in the shootout to secure two points.
Bobrovsky has been better as of late, winning two of his last four starts, including an incredible 35-save performance in a loss to the New York Islanders. His performances versus Boston in the playoffs last season were nothing short of spectacular.
The Jets have been very on and off this season. After a rocky start saw them as one of the pedestrians of the west, they’ve won four of their last five since the start of November, with their only loss coming in a shootout. It will be the start of a four-game road trip for the Jets, and the Panthers need to pounce on their limited one day of travel from Manitoba to Florida.
Their defense has been phenomenal this month, only giving up nine goals across this five-game stretch. The only game in which the defense wasn’t playing well, goalie Connor Hellebuyck saved 51 of 53 shots to deny the San Jose Sharks. Hellebuyck has started as a sort of bounce-back season to 2017-18, with a near 2.30 GAA. The Panthers, who have looked better with Aleksander Barkov‘s return to form, should be able to take this one at home.
The Rangers showed how they can beat the Panthers on Sunday; get on the power play. New York scored their last two goals on the man advantage through two separate lines. If Florida can avoid that, they already showed their forward core is too much for NYR’s weaker defensive pairings.
That leaves the Anaheim Ducks, a team that Florida should have no problem beating. The Ducks, currently sitting at a pedestrian 9-8-1, are better than what they were last season but are still one of the lower-tier teams in the league.
The goalie tandem of John Gibson and Ryan Miller have played well so far this season, but the Panthers simply need to beat them to win against Anaheim. With the way the Panthers have looked against lower-tier teams like Detroit and NYR, it should be no problem.
However, take nothing for granted when watching the Panthers this season. Most games have come down to one goal, even when the Panthers or their opponents are cruising early on. Carolina were 4-0 up against the Panthers but wound up being pulled back to 5-4 before an empty net. Florida once led 4-1 against Tampa Bay but wound up holding on in the last seconds for a 4-3 win. That doesn’t even touch all the OT and shootout endings.
For now though, Florida are pulling within the division lead. Despite being fourth in the Atlantic, the Cats can reach within two if they can beat Boston, and get an easier string of opponents at home to try and grab first place.
If they lose these next few, however, Florida can dig themselves into a bigger hole than they anticipate right now, with the potential of Boston being seven or eight points clear after this stretch, Joel Quenneville‘s team need to stay focused on each and every game.
Win now, take the pressure off for the rest of the season. With an easier stretch of games coming up, including four of the next five at home, Florida must win at least three of the next five.