Weak Eastern Conference Leaves Door Open for Florida Panthers Playoffs Dream

Florida Panthers within Striking Distance of a Playoff Spot

The Florida Panthers have been, in mild terms, mediocre this season. They’ve won just 25 out of 54 games, hold a record of 25-23-6, and sit on a -27 goal differential. Typically at the start of the season, the projected cut line for playoff teams sits around 95 points. Right now, the Panthers are on pace to fall ten points shy of that benchmark.

A Bizarre Playoff Race

That being said, this season has been a tale of two conferences. Both conferences feature a glut of teams fighting for the bottom playoff spots, but one race is well ahead of the other. In the West, there are probably four teams out of contention. On the other hand, the East has probably only eliminated the bottom three clubs, so both races are still tight.  The major difference though is the pace at which clubs are racking up points.

The final Wild Card spot in the East is held by the New York Islanders, sitting at 64 points.  The Western Conference counterpart in that position, the Minnesota Wild, has 68 (with one less game played).

While a four-point spread might not sound like much, the pace is vastly different over the whole 82-game season.  Right now, the cut lines for the playoff race in each conference are on two different planets.  It looks like the 8th seed in the West is going to take roughly 98 points to lock down.  In the East, that number is only 89.

Taking Advantage of Everyone’s Poor Play

The first question that comes to mind when viewing this stat is, “why are the conferences so different?”. First, you could point out that the West has outpaced the East in many of the most reason years. Then you could also note that the 2nd best team in the league is the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights, which adds another killer team to an already-top-heavy conference.  But, these debates are for another article…

If you’re a mediocre team in the East (which, as we’ve established, the Panthers are) you’re looking at the standings and licking your chops. If they were in the West, Florida would be 12 points out of a playoff spot. Instead, they’re just eight behind with six games in hand on the New York Islanders. Not only that, but they’ve got games in hand on literally everyone else in the race too.

The New York Rangers are three points ahead, but Florida has four games in hand.

The Carolina Hurricanes are seven points ahead, but Florida has five games in hand.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are six points ahead, but Florida has three games in hand.

Heck, even the teams behind them have all played two to four more games.

The Road to 89 Points

Theoretically, with all those games in hand, the Panthers could actually leapfrog each franchise and take hold of the last playoff spot. As long as at least one of those came in regulation too, they’d own the tiebreaker against all other clubs. However, having games in hand doesn’t guarantee anything, as the team still has to win them to make them matter.

The biggest thing going in Florida’s favour is that they’re playing their best hockey of the year right now. Everyone says you have to get hot at the right time, and that time would be now for the Cats. They’ve won five of their last six, just got both of their main goaltenders back from the IR in James Reimer and Roberto Luongo, and are undefeated on their current road trip across Canada.

It is very likely that every other team in this race is looking at the lowly race as an opportunity to get on a roll and sneak into the playoffs. Assuming the 89-point marker holds, the Panthers would only need 33 points through their final 28 games to clinch a berth. That would be a record of 16-11-1, which is the kind of pace that every playoff team would like to enter the postseason on at the very minimumNow we can probably expect to see the level of play rise across the board as things tighten up, so the 89 point threshold may bump up to 91 or higher. Either way, making a playoff push isn’t as astronomical a task as it should be for a team with only 56 points in mid-February.

What it is Going to Take

Just because it is achievable does not mean it is easy. For example, its taken a 5-1-0 stint to keep their hopes alive. Plus, having all those games in hand is going to hit hard in March, where the team plays 17 times in 31 nights. That actually extends into April as well, as they close out with a five game run in seven days.

The schedule won’t have any breaks, and with plenty of divisional match-ups it is sure to be competitive every night. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck are going to have to stay healthy and find a way to elevate their linemates. Each of them have been at or near a point per game pace, and that can’t halt now. Aaron Ekblad will have to continue his torrid pace of late, and Reimer and Luongo will both have to be good to share the heavy load through a busy month.

How They Get In

It seems as though this could very well be a team on the rise. If they pick up a couple more wins before the trade deadline, then maybe General Manager Dale Tallon makes a move to improve the team too. At the very least, they probably won’t be sellers. Head coach Bob Boughner has the team ticking right now, and their youth should pay off with a grinding schedule ahead.

This team is built for playing back-to-backs and otherwise crowded schedules. With the “1A-1B” tandem in net, there won’t be any qualms from either goaltender about playing time. Another huge boost is that they have Harri Sateri waiting in the wings in case one of either Reimer or Luongo struggles. God knows the team didn’t get consistency from their goaltenders earlier in the year, and after Sateri rattled off four straight wins while both of the main keepers were hurt, there will likely be less hesitation to try a different guy between the pipes to inject some energy as necessary.

The couple weeks leading to the trade deadline will be critical. A poor performance in even the next game or two could dictate the rest of the year. If they struggle, a couple guys could get dealt before the 26th. This might disrupt and destroy their hopes, but ultimately that is the situation the team has put itself in.

It is do-or-die time for this franchise. Frankly, it is going to be do-or-die until the season ends at this point. If your a Panthers fan, the playoffs have officially begun.

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