Panthers Must Run the Gauntlet in February

Nobody said making the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be easy. The Florida Panthers are about to find out just how rough the road to the postseason can be. The Cats currently sit atop the Atlantic Division, five points ahead of both the cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings, and six points ahead of the Boston Bruins. Florida is also eight points above the second Wild Card spot, the final playoff seed.

While that eight-point cushion is nice, it can evaporate quickly: Twenty games into the schedule, the Montreal Canadiens occupied first place in the Atlantic and held a seven-point lead over the second Wild Card. The Habs staggered into the All-Star break in fifth place in the Atlantic, three points below the final playoff seed. Though Montreal’s fall is closely tied to the extended absence of all-world goalie Carey Price, it doesn’t take injuries to key players for a team to slump; just ask the Dallas Stars. If the Panthers hope to hang onto first place, they’ll need to pick up right where they left off before the break. Even then, February’s going to be tough.

Running the Gauntlet

The Florida Panthers end their six-day hiatus by traveling to Washington to battle the league-leading Capitals. They’ll catch a bit of a break, due to the NHL-mandated one-game suspension of superstar Alex Ovechkin, but the Caps have more than enough talent to compensate. That contest kicks off a stretch of thirteen games in twenty-seven days. Here are the key numbers in Florida’s February schedule:

  • Eight home games.
  • Five road games.
  • Three games vs. Atlantic Division teams: vs. Detroit (Feb 4), at Detroit (Feb 8), at Buffalo (Feb 9).
  • Ten games against opponents currently in playoff position or on the bubble.
  • Three back-to-back sets: Feb 8-9 at Detroit and Buffalo, Feb 12-13 vs. St. Louis and Nashville, Feb 27-28 at Columbus and Minnesota.
  • One break of more than two days between games (Feb 21-24)

The two meetings with the Red Wings are of particular interest, due to the potential impact on the Atlantic Division race: Two regulation wins for Florida would open up a nine-point lead over Detroit, while two regulation losses would shrink the Cats’ lead over the Wings to a single point. Also important, the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Sunrise twice (Feb 6 and 15). The surging Pens currently occupy the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and, like the Panthers, carry a three-game win streak into February. Wins over Pittsburgh would slow their momentum while boosting the confidence of Florida’s young team. Confidence aside, the Cats could receive a different sort of boost in February.

Reinforcements on the Way?

The NHL trade deadline is February 29. Florida General Manager Dale Tallon has expressed interest in adding a piece or two for the Panthers’ playoff push. While some see Winnipeg Jets Captain Andrew Ladd as a good fit in Florida, this writer believes gritty Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Scott Hartnell would be a better option. Tallon’s looking to thread the needle between a mere deadline “rental” and a long term impact on the team’s cap flexibility, without sacrificing too many of the Cats’ stockpiled assets. The better Florida performs on the ice in February, the easier it will be for Tallon to swing a trade favorable to the Panthers. As every GM knows, it’s always easier when you’re dealing from a position of strength.