By now, everyone is well aware that the Panthers are on the verge of their first playoff berth since 2000. Now, with just 9 games left in the season, Florida holds a 5 point lead over the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres, who currently sit tied for 8th. Should the Cats fail to beat out the Caps for the division, they also hold a 1 point lead over the 7th seed Ottawa Senators.
Florida suffered a small setback tonight in Raleigh, wasting the game in hand they had over their closest competitors, losing on the 2nd night of back to back games to the Hurricanes. But for the Panthers, it was just their first loss in the last 6 games, as they strung together a winning streak longer than 3 for the first time since 2008. In that 5 game streak, Florida outscored their opponents 15-6, posting a 5 spot on the Maple Leafs and following that with a half dozen against the sliding Bruins. They also won a shootout for just the 5th time in 13 tries this season. So on the surface, it certainly seems as if things are heading in the right direction.
But it’s not just their recent play that has hopefuls in south Florida thinking postseason. The next 5 games are against the bottom 5 teams in the league, starting with Edmonton and the Islanders at home this weekend, followed by road games in Montreal, Minnesota, and Columbus. Meanwhile, the teams Florida will be competing with for a playoff spot aren’t so fortunate. The Capitals have a tough back to back coming up, at home to the Flyers, first playing in Philadelphia against a hot Flyers team, then welcoming a desperate Winnipeg Jets team to D.C. Buffalo, meanwhile, also does the home and away on back to back nights dance this weekend, heading to the Big Apple to take on the top seeded Rangers before returning home the following night to play the Wild. Then the Sabres and Capitals actually meet each other in a crucial game for the teams involved, and also for those scoreboard watching. Barring the dreaded 3 point game, the Panthers should benefit regardless of the outcome.
It’s not just the short term schedule that favors Florida. Should they need the help, the Panthers will have 4 games the final week of the season in April. The Caps and Sabres just 3. Florida has two of their final 3 games at home, where the Cats have earned points in 28 of 37 games. The Caps and Sabres play host in just 1 of their final 3. Should it come down to the final games of the season, Washington closes theirs at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, Buffalo ends with road games in Philadelphia and Boston. Florida plays the irrelevant Hurricanes at home.
On paper, it would seem Panther fans have reason to feel optimistic. But, being Panther fans, that doesn’t always come easily. Florida put together two rather uninspiring performances their last two times out. Granted, one resulted in a win over the Flyers (although Yahoo’s Puck Daddy is quick to point out the flaws in Florida’s winning style), but on back to back nights now, Florida failed to demonstrate a playoff desperate mentality. Hopefully a return home, where the Panthers have won 6 of their past 7 games, will get the Cats back to what has made them successful. And as long as we’re trying to be optimistic, why look down when we could be looking up and catching that 2nd seed? Florida trails the current number 2 team Boston by just 2 points, and the B’s have a tough 3 game west coast road trip coming up, and they finish the season by playing the Rangers, Penguins, Senators, and Sabres, all playoff teams as of now. Who says the Panthers are just fighting to win the division? The schedule says they’re right in the mix for a #2 seed! And who would have told you that 6 long months ago?