A note of renewed optimism accompanies the Florida Panthers as they get set to return from the holiday break against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center.
As little as a month ago, an article written by Miami Herald reporter George Richards referred to the Panthers’ playoff chances as “already daunting.” While he admitted that “the Panthers obviously have plenty of time to get back into the mix,” Richards was certainly not alone in questioning exactly how tall of an order securing a playoff berth would be for the Panthers. After all, as of Nov. 26, the Cats had lost nine of their past twelve.
Fast forward one month and the tune has changed significantly.
On Dec. 23, another Miami Herald article declared that “. . . after winning 11 of its past 14 games, including its previous five, Florida is only a point back of Montreal for first place in a division the now-struggling Canadiens were running away with just a few weeks ago.” With a game in hand to boot.
Furthermore, according to Dan Spiegel, the Panthers have not only “set a franchise record for wins/points in December” with two games still to be played, but have also, for the first time in franchise history, “put together two five-game winning streaks in the same season.”
They keep playing like this, why not? https://t.co/uO8U99Ip5F
— George Richards (@GeorgeRichards) December 23, 2015
It goes without saying that with more wins comes better odds of punching a post-season ticket, but a couple of specific factors have led the Panthers to become a more serious part of any playoff conversation.
Winning Key Matchups
Not only have the Panthers been winning, but they have been doing it against other Eastern Conference teams – effectively dealing a ‘double whammy’ to berth/wild card competitors. In addition to defeating the high-flying Capitals 4-1 on Dec. 10, the Cats closed out their pre-Christmas schedule with dominant victories over the New York Islanders (5-1), the New Jersey Devils (5-1), Carolina Hurricanes (2-0), and Ottawa Senators (2-1).
While a one- or two-goal margin might not seem like a ‘decisive’ victory, even in the tighter of these games it was apparent that the Panthers got the better of their opponents. For instance, commenting on the game against Ottawa, the National Post observed that “The Senators weren’t in the same league as the Panthers, somehow getting the game to overtime despite being outshot 38-14 in regulation.”
On the other hand, it’s only fair to point out that Florida’s three losses in December also came against in-Conference rivals. They dropped a game against the Devils and Senators (both by a score of 2-4) on Dec. 6 and 8, respectively, before losing to the Bruins (1-3) on Dec. 12.
Fortunately, the Panthers gave themselves some wiggle room by coming out on top in tight games against tough teams like the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. FoxSports pointed out just how dificult these opponents have been for Florida in the past, especially on the road.
“The Panthers snapped a nine-game losing streak in Nashville, winning here for the first time since Dec. 11, 1999,” said the media outlet’s official website.
In other words, during recent win streaks, Florida has been able to beat some formidable Central Division teams and collect hitherto rare out-of-conference points while on the road in order to make up what little ground they’ve lost in divisional matchups.
The fact that the Panthers have managed to go on their current run despite a significant number of injuries is perhaps an even bigger reason for optimism. Defenseman Alex Petrovic has missed time since late-October with a lower-body/foot ailment. However, the injury bug bit much harder – and for a more extended period of time – earlier this month.
Stud Centerman Nick Bjugstad has been out indefinitely for the past couple weeks. Derek MacKenzie, mainstay of ‘The Energy Line’ and the Panthers’ penalty kill, was sidelined for the better part of two weeks due to a lower-body injury. A flu bug kept Jaromir Jagr out of the Dec. 15 contest against the Islanders. Defenseman Steven Kampfer has missed time and Dave Bolland was sent to the Panthers’ AHL affiliate on a ‘conditioning assignment.’
And yet, the Panthers have kept on winning with their young depth players Quinton Howden, Logan Shaw, Corban Knight, Connor Brickley, Rocco Grimaldi and Dylan Olsen all finding ways to contribute.
According to David Dwork of CBS Miami, “the Panthers haven’t been this high in the standings in late-December since their division championship season of 2011-12.”
Given this sampling of how an injury-riddled Panthers squad can perform, they not only seem poised to continue their regular season success, but to do some damage beyond it in the post-season.