The Florida Panthers begin the 2019-20 season by facing the defending Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a home-and-home series. The two games should be a fantastic measuring stick to see how the offseason changes have improved a Panthers club that finished with 86 points last season, and missed a playoff berth by 12 points. Expectations are high this season, as many expect Joel Quenneville’s team to make its first playoff appearance in four years and win its first series since 1995-96.
Over the course of the 2019-20 season, we will break the Panthers’ schedule into 10-game segments to gauge their playoff chances. We’ll also offer a prediction for each game, either a regulation win/loss or an overtime win/loss (which includes shootouts).
In the past five seasons, it has taken an average of 96.2 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers will need to earn approximately 12 points during each 10-game span to make or exceed the 96-point marker.
In their first 10-game stretch of the season, the Panthers: play eight teams who made the playoffs last season; two sets back-to-back games; and have six games away from the BB&T Center and four home games.
Game #1, Oct. 3 at Tampa Bay Lightning
For the third consecutive season, the Panthers travel to play their in-state rival to open their season. They have lost the previous two road openers, so Quenneville will be looking to break that trend in his first game as head coach behind the Panthers bench.
Last season, the Panthers finished 0-2-2 versus the Lightning and the last time they won in Tampa was Mar. 26, 2016. It will a big deal if they win the season opener on the road.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Loss (0-1-0)
Game #2, Oct. 5 vs Tampa Bay Lightning
Two days after opening the season in Tampa, the Panthers host the Lightning in the second meeting of the Sunshine State showdown.
After earning a league-high 128 points last season, the Lightning were stunningly swept by Sergei Bobrovsky and the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Panthers signed Bobrovsky in free agency along with defenseman Anton Stralman, who played the past five seasons with the Lightning.
This game marks the fifth consecutive game these teams have played against each other over a 12-day stretch, as they concluded the preseason with three matchups; expect the action to be fierce.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Win (1-1-0)
Game #3, Oct. 8 vs Carolina Hurricanes
Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes made it to the Eastern Conference Final. This season, they will be trying to prove that their run was no fluke. The Panthers would like to copy the Hurricane’s success from a year ago, so upending this “bunch of jerks” would be a good win in the early going.
In 2018-19, the Panthers were 0-2-1 against the Hurricanes, and in each loss they surrendered four goals. Their beleaguered defense from a year ago, when it finished 28th in the league in goals against, will have an early opportunity to show it has improved.
Panthers Prediction-Overtime Win (2-1-0)
Game #4, Oct. 11 at Buffalo Sabres
The Panthers’ first road trip is a short three-game stretch to the New York/New Jersey area, starting with the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres are led by Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, who is coming off a career-high 40-goal season in 2018-19.
Meanwhile, Florida counters with the high-scoring line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov. Last season, Barkov scored four goals against Buffalo, while Dadonov added three. Twice the Panthers used a four-goal third period to win the game and they took the season series 3-1-0. This game may be the first opportunity for backup goaltender Sam Montembeault to start.
Panthers Prediction-Overtime Loss (2-1-1)
Game #5, Oct. 12 at New York Islanders
This game marks the end of the Panthers’ first back-to-back series of the season, as they take on the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum, the oldest building in the NHL (opened in 1972). The Islanders made the playoffs last season and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs.
Florida led the season series last season with a 2-0-1 record, including a win off Mike Hoffman’s overtime goal in their only road game against the club. Hoffman led the Panthers with a team-high 36 goals in 2018-19.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Loss (2-2-1)
Game #6, Oct. 14 at New Jersey Devils
Florida wraps up their three-game road trip with an afternoon matchup on Columbus Day with the New Jersey Devils. The Devils’ offseason moves make them a favorite, along with Florida, to significantly improve their performance from a season ago and compete for a playoff spot. Joining All-Star Taylor Hall this season are, the first-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Jack Hughes, and newcomers P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.
Florida went 1-1-1 against the Devils in 2018-19, including a 4-3 loss in the regular season finale, the final game of goaltender Roberto Luongo’s career.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Win (3-2-1)
Game #7, Oct. 18 vs Colorado Avalanche
The top line of the Colorado Avalanche is just as potent as the Panthers’ top unit. The Avalanche’s top trio feature Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who combined for 261 points last season, three more than Florida’s top line.
A season ago, Florida was 1-1-0 against the Avs, and this early season matchup will be exciting to watch.
Panthers Prediction-Overtime Win (4-2-1)
Game #8, Oct. 19 at Nashville Predators
Back-to-back games against two Western Conference playoff teams from 2018-19 will be a stout test for the Panthers, who first travel to Music City to meet the Nashville Predators. The Predators, just two seasons removed from making the Stanley Cup Final, are looking to bounce back after a pair of playoff disappointments.
Last season, the teams split the series with each team winning on the road. That bodes well for the Panthers. This game may be Montembeault’s second start in the first eight games of the season.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Loss (4-3-1)
Game #9, Oct. 22 vs Pittsburgh Penguins
This is the first of two home games against the Pittsburgh Penguins for Quenneville’s team this season. It may be a Tuesday night game, but it should the BB&T Center should be sold to near capacity as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as thousands of Penguins fans from south Florida turn up to see the Penguins.
Last season, Florida went 1-1-1 against Pittsburgh and the Panthers traded Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad to the Penguins for Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard, along with additional picks for each club. Neither Sheahan nor Brassard are still with the Panthers, while McCann and Bjugstad wil likely skate for the Pens in this game.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Win (5-3-1)
Game #10, Oct. 24 at Calgary Flames
The Panthers make an early four-game road trip to western Canada before it gets too cold. They open the trip visiting the Calgary Flames, who led the Western Conference with 107 points last season. They will be out to prove 2018-19 was not a fluke.
The Panthers, 13-19-3 versus Calgary all-time, would love to open the trip with a win against a team from last season’s playoffs. Following the Flames, the Panthers visit a pair of teams that failed to reach the postseason, the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, before finishing the trip in Colorado.
Panthers Prediction-Regulation Loss (5-4-1)
Last season, the Panthers opened the season with a 2-4-3 mark in October and struggled to recover for the remainder of the season. A solid start to 2019-20 will be imperative for success. Based on these predictions, the Panthers should have 11 points after their opening 10 games; one less than the needed 12 points per 10-game forecast to qualify for the playoffs. We’ll see how the team fares and breakdown games 11-20 later this month.
I have followed the NHL since the early 1980s, when offense was king. I lived in the midwest until 2013, when I relocated to south Florida.