The Florida Panthers Are Looking To Claw Their Way Back Into The Playoff Picture. Again.
The Florida Panthers have some work to do.
To have any hope of qualifying for the 2019 National Hockey League playoffs, the Panthers will need to go on a streak similar to the one they fashioned a season ago.
Around this time last year, the Panthers were a whopping 12 points out of the wild card race in the Eastern Conference. But over the next two months coming out of the All-Star break, Florida turned it on. With a mark of 20-6-1 from January 30th to March 26th, the Panthers suddenly looked as though they were headed to the postseason, sitting just one point out of a wild card spot with eight games remaining.
But such a hard charge can take its toll, and it obviously did with Florida. Three straight losses in four nights on the road in late March sealed their fate. Even though they ended the year with five wins in a row, the Panthers finished the season a gut-wrenching one point out of the playoffs.
So we know that Florida isn’t afraid of hard work. Good thing too, as they will have to do it again this season.
The Panthers enter their break this year in familiar territory, 10 points back heading into play on Wednesday night. Any chance for the postseason dance is a long shot, but not impossible for a couple of reasons.
Sunrise And Shine
First is the schedule. Coming out of the break, the Panthers will spend the majority of February enjoying some home cooking, with an astonishing 11 of their first 12 games at home in Sunrise, Florida. Seven of those games however are against teams with a record of .500 or better. It’s easy to see that the Panthers playoff fortunes could be decided during this stretch alone.
Secondly is the state of the Atlantic Division. Even though the Panthers best shot at the playoffs would seem to be the wild card path, they can’t overlook the outside possibility of grabbing third place in the division. On the surface, the prospect of that would seem laughable.
However, Florida is only 11 points behind the Boston Bruins for third (with a game in hand), and 12 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Boston playing inconsistently for much of the season (combined with Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask‘s concussion worry), and the Maple Leafs recent slump, catching either team is not inconceivable. Florida also has three more games against Boston this season. In fact, you could argue it’s an easier route than trying to hunt down the Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently hold the final wild card spot.
In order to even reach the Penguins, the Panthers would still need to climb over the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres in the wild card standings.
So, what’s it all mean? It means that the odds are certainly against Florida. The Panthers will need to construct a streak similar (if not better) to last years’ stretch drive. And even then, you still need some help from other teams above you in the standings to lose a few games.
Trocheck, Forecheck, Paycheck
But Vincent Trocheck is arguably the straw that stirs the mojito in Florida.
In mid-November, Trocheck suffered a broken ankle in a game against the Ottawa Senators. Just prior to that, the Panthers had put together a five-game win streak to get themselves back into the playoff picture after a rough start to the season. Trocheck missed 27 games due to the injury, and during his absence the Cats went an abysmal 9-13-5. Concluding that stretch was a miserable seven-game losing streak, where the offence mustered only 15 goals.
However, since his return three games ago, the Panthers offence has come alive, scoring 13 times in putting together an opportunistic three-game win streak. Trocheck has done his part to spearhead that run, scoring twice with a pair of assists. With him in the line-up, Florida is above .500 on the season, going 11-7-3. His great chemistry with Huberdeau resulted in breakout years for both of them last season, and provides the Cats with a top-six forward group that without a doubt compares to any other in the Eastern Conference.
Like many other teams, the Panthers have some injuries. Penalty killing veteran Derek MacKenzie has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. Winger Jamie McGinn has missed the entire season after back surgery, and defenceman MacKenize Weeger is currently on injured reserve with a concussion. Fortunately for the Panthers, the core of this team is healthy, certainly necessary for them to make another run for the playoffs.
The Panthers are celebrating their 25th season in the NHL. They have only been to the postseason five times. It will take a monumental run this year in order for them to get in. Their chances? Slim. Is it possible? Absolutely. With a three-game win streak already in their pocket heading into the break, the work has already begun.
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Statistics provided by hockey-reference.com, hockeydb.com and theScore
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals