Most fans would agree that, other than playoffs, this time of year is the best stretch of the NHL season. There are still many teams in the mix for a playoff spot, and as the trade deadline looms, we anxiously want to know who will be buyers, who will be sellers and who may stick it out with what they have. For the Florida Panthers, who are seven points back of a postseason berth, what they decide to do leading up to Monday’s deadline, hinges on the next two games. Seven points is a large hole to climb out of but eleven points are insurmountable this late in the season.
The good news is that their motivation could not be higher and teams typically play their best hockey when the season is on the line — desperate teams are dangerous teams. The bad news is that their crucial next two games are against the star-studded rosters of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who are first and second in their division standings.
Shutting Down Alex Ovechkin & Evgeni Malkin
If the Panthers are to maintain their position as a playoff hopeful, they will need to shut down Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals, and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, who are currently first and second in the NHL in goals and ninth and fourth in points, respectively. Malkin, in particular, may be the best player in the league right now.
The two Russian superstars will pose a real problem for the Panthers who lack a true shutdown defenseman. Aaron Ekblad is a star, but he cannot shut down elite offensive players by himself. Maybe he’ll get there but at this moment, the Panthers’ top defenseman is no match for talents like Ovechkin and Malkin.
Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck Vital in Florida’s Success
Luckily, the Panthers have what may be the best one-two punch in the NHL at centre, other than maybe the Penguins’ Malkin and Sidney Crosby. The Panthers combination of Barkov and Trocheck has combined for 107 points and only a minus-4 rating on a team that has only four players above even.
Furthermore, Barkov is leading the NHL in average ice time among forwards at 22:18 and Trocheck is third at 21:30. There aren’t many forwards who can handle over 20 minutes on a night-to-night basis but the Panthers have two, which allows them to match up their top lines against players like Ovechkin and Malkin.
Forwards that handle high minutes contribute more than just offense and while Barkov and Trocheck have flown under the radar this season, they are two of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Barkov, in particular, is known for his offensive abilities but the former second-overall pick is earning the defensive accolades he deserves.
Trocheck, on the other hand, is known as a gritty yet highly skilled, two-way center who can play a role similar to Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. He’s a smaller body but plays a big game and has shown his top-notch offensive upside this season which is likely why the Panthers opted to commit to him as an integral player of the future.
During Florida’s most critical stretch of the season, Barkov and Trocheck will need to rise to the occasion to keep their team alive. If they don’t, and the Panthers fall to both the Caps and the Pens, then their playoff dreams are all but over. It’s a lot of pressure to put on two young players but in this league that’s the way it goes.
What are the Panthers’ Chances?
Wins against Washington and Pittsburgh would still leave Florida on the outside of the playoffs, and with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils up next, followed by the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning, the road is long. But, as they say, anything can happen in the NHL.
Also working against them is the New York Islanders’ and Rangers’ upcoming schedule, two teams the Panthers will have to pass in order to secure a playoff spot. The Islanders have games against the Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens twice, Penguins, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. The Islanders should win against the Canadiens, Canucks and Oilers, and with the stellar play of Matthew Barzal, John Tavares, and Anders Lee, it would be a surprise to see them fall into a losing streak.
The Rangers playing against Montreal, Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings, Canucks, Calgary Flames and Oilers means the Panthers will need a couple of upsets to help them. As we’ve seen, no game is unwinnable in the NHL but Florida has quite a bit stacked against them if they’re looking for a historic run at the playoffs.
Despite these challenges, anything is possible, and that’s the glory of the NHL. It’s a league in which we’ve seen both remarkable winning streaks, and detrimental losing streaks, and if the Panthers want the Stanley Cup, then the former is essential.
As the team approaches tonight’s game against Washington and Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, expect the Panthers to play aggressively and desperately, as the definition and outcome of their season likely depends on the next two games. Now is the time where hockey fans find out what this team is made of.