When the puck dropped on the 2014-15 NHL season, I’d be willing to bet many of you excluded the Florida Panthers from your playoff discussions. It’s easy to discount the floundering South Florida franchise that undeniably has the worst attendance in the league. The Panthers have also been connected to endless relocation rumors because of that porous attendance in recent years. Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City and Portland among others are plausible candidates to receive a franchise. But all that relocation talk is for another day.
Head Coach Gerard Gallant wants the masses talking about his Panthers and their fight for the post season. They have been within striking distance of the Boston Bruins, who at the time of publication, retain the second and final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Just four points back, the Panthers have ten games to catch the Bruins with one in hand. It’s also worth noting that the Panthers have two meetings with Boston (one in Boston, one at home).
Ultimately, the Cats are chasing Boston for that coveted final playoff spot. However, the recently surging Ottawa Senators now stand in their way as well. Ottawa, winners of six straight, sits just one point back of Boston with two games in hand. They also have one in hand on the Panthers. Andrew Hammond has been the talk of the NHL as of late helping navigate the Senators into the race.
It’s more than feasible that the Panthers can catch the Bruins, but they have to play better than they’ve played all season. Fortunately, two of their next five games are against Ottawa and Boston; a critical opportunity to gain ground. While the Cats are a commendable 6-3-1 in their last ten games, their next five are all on the road as this upcoming trip takes them to Tampa Bay, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston. That’s a daunting task for any team, playoff bound or not. This team has shown flashes of brilliance with huge road wins in Anaheim, Vancouver, Calgary and winning twice at Joe Lewis arena in Detroit. The potential is there. If the Florida Panthers are a playoff team, this is where they prove it. If they can’t weather this stretch and close the gap, they have no business in the playoffs. Contenders find a way to win on the road in a hostile environment in April and May to advance.
Hypothetically speaking, should the Panthers supplant the Bruins for the final playoff spot in the east, they could end up playing one of three teams. Under the new playoff format, the top spot in the conference draws the second wild card team in the first round. At this point, the Rangers and Canadiens remain tied at 99 points atop the east with the Lightning close behind at 97. Florida hasn’t particularly matched up well with New York dropping all three season match ups. However, the Cats have played Montreal and Tampa well; in two meetings with each club, the Panthers have won once and lost in overtime. As history has shown in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, anything goes.
A lot has to happen if the Panthers are going to pull this off. The abundance of youth and inexperience may be what prevents the Panthers from getting in this year. Guys like Bjugstadt, Huberdeau, Ekblad and Barkov need to dig deep for the stretch run. The ageless Jaromir Jagr has provided a bit of scoring, but perhaps more valuable than that is the long term effect he’ll have mentoring these young stars. Should they indeed miss out on the dance this April, give it another season. Believe me when I tell you the Florida Panthers could be a legitimate threat in the East for the next few years. As it stands now, the Panthers chances of sneaking in certainly aren’t bad. They just aren’t good. Just don’t write them off quite yet.