With first place in the Discover Central Division on the line, the Florida Panthers face off against the Carolina Hurricanes in a crucial two-game set at BB&T Center. With the two teams both sitting at 65 points, this is an important series to look at for both sides.
The Hurricanes currently have two games in hand on the Panthers, so this is a huge fork in the road for Florida. If the Panthers drop one or both of these games, it has the potential to set them up for a first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning as the second seed in the division.
It’s a tough road ahead for the Panthers, as they head into Saturday’s game with a 1-3-2 record this season against the Hurricanes.
What This Means for the Playoff Race
With the season winding down, it’s gotten to the point of the season where teams are jockeying for position. This two-game set will be one of the more important puzzle pieces for building the playoff picture.
The main goal for both of these teams is to get the first seed in the Central Division locked up and to face one of the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, or Chicago Blackhawks instead of the Lightning. With Tampa Bay trailing three points behind them, they could lose home ice in the playoffs altogether if things go South after this series.
For the Panthers, it’s even more important that they establish the easiest road possible in the playoffs, with Aaron Ekblad likely to be out until late June. The injury bug also hit Carter Verhaeghe, who is out week-to-week with an upper-body injury.
With the injury bug striking, Florida has still found a way to work through the injuries, and facing Carolina is a huge test to see how resilient this roster is.
Since losing Ekblad on March 30, the Panthers are 7-3-1, which is good for the 7th best record in the NHL in that span. However, they haven’t yet had the opportunity to make up ground on Carolina, who are 7-2-2 in that span, the fifth-best record in that span.
With this two-game set being the last time these two teams play each other and nine games left in the Panthers’ season, this might be the last chance they get to make up that ground.
In order to make up that ground, Florida needs to see production from their depth, especially with a key player like Verhaeghe, most likely out for both games of this series. Luckily for them, they’ve already been receiving that production.
What works in the Panthers’ favor going into the playoffs and this series is the emergence of the players they acquired at the deadline – Sam Bennett in particular.
In three games as a Panther, Bennett has scored three goals and five points, including a two-goal performance in Tuesday’s win over Columbus. His physical play, along with his goal-scoring touch as of late, makes him an x-factor in this two-game set.
Bennett has found a home alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair on the second line. They showed so much chemistry together in their matchup against Columbus, combining for eight points.
“In a short amount of time, you can tell they really like playing with one another,” Quenneville said during the post-game press conference. “They’ve had some highlight-reel goals. [Bennett] seems to be getting to the net. Some pretty plays off the rush. They really have, in a short amount of time, clicked. All three guys are really making it happen. It’s been fun to watch.”
If Bennett keeps establishing himself as a viable option going forward, it would be huge for Florida’s chances of winning this series and claiming first place in the Central Division.