As the NHL 2014-15 regular season heads towards a close, the Florida Panthers are looking to squeeze their way into a playoff slot. Aside from the fact that they trail both Ottawa and Boston by 5 and 4 points respectively, with only one game in hand against Boston, the real question seems to be, what if they actually make it?
The ultimate goal, after all, is taking home the Stanley Cup, and in order to do that, the Panthers would have to take down some tough adversaries, including Montreal, the New York Rangers and Detroit. Breaking it down leaves a certain amount of trepidation about their playoff future this year, but it’s not all bad.
Despite holding the first place position in the Atlantic Division, the wild card Panthers would still match up well against the Canadiens. To date, they have played three times and wound up with a shootout loss, a shootout win and a loss during regulation. So while the Cats have the skills to keep up, the team of youngsters may not be able to compete emotionally against the pressure of playoff level hockey.
In addition, there can be no doubt of the brilliance that is Carey Price in net. He leads the NHL in save percentage (1.86), goals against (.938) and shutouts (40). He’s calm, cool and seemingly unflappable. Playing against him is a challenge for any team, but you can rest assured that Price will be at his absolute MVP best, which could prove problematic overall.
New York Rangers
Making the playoffs in the second wild card spot could team the Panthers against the New York Rangers in the first round. Historically, this doesn’t bode well for the team, and the Rangers are, without a doubt, on fire.
The obvious problem, and not just for the Panthers, can be summed up in one word: Speed. There’s really no other team in the NHL that moves the puck as quickly as the Rangers do. Keeping up with them would require the Panthers to play a more physical kind of game, and that’s not their forte. Trying to match the Rangers’ skill has gotten them 0-3 so far this year so this is undoubtedly the most dangerous team, as well as the one who could cause them the most trouble, in the first round.
Detroit Red Wings
After four meetings, the Panthers prove that Detroit is not their biggest obstacle in getting to Lord Stanley’s Cup. In fact, they’ve beat them twice in regulation and once in the shootout already. However, the Red Wings have stepped up their game since January, with strong showings from Henrik Zetterberg (16-43) and Pavel Datsyuk (23-35), earning their way into the third place spot of the Atlantic Division.
The obvious strength in Detroit is their vast amount of playoff experience, something the Panthers can’t even come close to.
Are the Playoffs A Reality?
Getting there is almost the easy part. The rest would be almost random because this isn’t a team of super stars, but they’re not easily written off either.
The addition of NHL veteran Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline puts big check marks in the experience and goal-scoring boxes. Jagr has also been steadily playing a role in on-ice leadership and as a huge mentor for the younger players. There’s already been a visible change in Jonathan Huberdeau (now tied for first in points) and Aleksander Barkov, who’ve been his most common line mates, showing that just his presence is enough to change things in their favor.
Meanwhile, the backbone of the team that’s kept them in game after game is still going strong. Nick Bjugstad, with 24 goals and 19 assists, hasn’t let up at all, while Jimmy Hayes and Brad Boyes manage to put one in the net when they need it most.
Add to that what could possibly be the most underrated defense in the league, this is a team who might just push through. 19-year-old Aaron Ekblad, the first pick overall for both the Panthers and the NHL last summer, is soaring through his rookie season, surrounded by an impressive array of young and old players alike. Pairing the experience of Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell with youngsters like Ekblad and Dmitry Kulikov, and then the sheer brawn of Erik Gudbranson, adds up to serious protection in front of the net.
At the same time, goalie Roberto Luongo is one of the keys to the team’s success thus far, despite injuries, and remains a solid netminder and leader on the ice. However, with backup Al Montoya still on Injured Reserve, the Cats’ goaltending situation could easily become precarious if Luongo were to get hurt again. Despite a solid effort from the AHL’s Dan Ellis while Luongo was out, he’s only played seven NHL playoff games ever, putting him and the team at a slight disadvantage.
Realistically, the Panthers would have a tough road to the Stanley Cup this season. However, any playoff experience they get this year under the tutelage of Jagr and Luongo will go a long way towards making a South Florida Stanley Cup a reality in the near future.