If the Florida Panthers want to make the playoffs, then they’re going to have to take care of business and finish ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since the success of the 2015-16 season, the expectations for the Florida Panthers were up when it came to how they would fare the following season. After making the playoffs for the first time in four years, the still questionable first-round exit still wasn’t enough for Panther fans. The following seasons were supposed to be a step forward for the franchise. Instead, they got the opposite.
The next three seasons would be miserable for the Cats as they quickly went back to their losing ways. It’s not that they had awful seasons – they were just seeming to be that team that was always on the outside looking in. As they continued to miss out on postseason play, the Panthers became active in the 2019 offseason in order to get back into the playoff picture. Now, this season, they have a big chance ahead of them after the All-Star break.
In the Panthers’ eventful offseason, they hired one of the best coaches of all time, one of the world’s best goaltenders, and signed a few utility players to fill out the lineup. On paper, they seem to look like the team to beat in the 2019-20 season as they instantly raised their playoff hopes high. As we’ve entered the new year and teams are starting to make their final pushes, the Panthers have one option if they want to make the playoffs: beat out the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As most people know, to make the playoffs in the NHL, you have to either claim a divisional spot to play another divisional foe or a wild card position to play a divisional winner. While the Panthers are in the hunt for a wild card spot, it seems like the division is the way to go for Florida.
In the wild card race, it’s arguably easier for Panthers to get in because they are only one point out with two games in hand. But, it’s about the number of teams that are battling for the last spot, not points out.
At the moment, the Cats are in contention for a wild card with the Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and even teams in their own division like the Buffalo Sabers. For the division, the Panthers would only have to battle one team, making it arguably easier to earn a divisional spot.
When it comes to the division, the “too many teams” problem vanishes as the Panthers only have to battle it out with one team: Toronto. Yes, the Panthers are two points back of the Leafs with two games in hand, but that’s where the problems end. Teams like Buffalo and Montreal, who before posed as a threat to the Cats have suddenly faded out of the playoff picture, making it that much easier for Florida not to worry about anybody creeping up on them.
When it comes to the Panthers and Leafs, however, they have plenty of games remaining and plenty of time to face each other on the ice. Last weekend, Florida took down the Leafs in convincing fashion by a score of 8-4. After that, these two teams still have three more games to battle it out for that third spot. With the Panthers beating the Leafs the last six times consecutively at the BB&T Center, it seems like Florida has the tools it needs to win the season series.
Even though head-to-head matchups are big, winning a season series will not ensure a playoff berth. The Panthers will have to play better than they have been, but they do not have to win every game. Basically, they have to stay consistent and not go on long losing streaks as the Leafs continue to strive under their new coaching staff.
For now, the Cats need to get a jump on the Leafs and try to build a cushion in the standings as the Leafs have lost some of their key lineup pieces to injuries. For a team that doesn’t play defense very well, injuries to their best defensemen in Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin will hurt them tremendously. So, if the Panthers want to secure their spot, they must stay consistent, take advantage of any opportunity, and win as many as they can for the span of the Rielly/Muzzin injuries.
While the Maple Leafs continue to hit bumps in the road, the Florida Panthers need to take advantage of their slip-up for the remainder of their schedule.