After their 4-2 win over Edmonton Sunday, the Florida Panthers are one point out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with three games in hand on the team (Boston) they need to beat out for that spot. Florida is 8-3-1 since Dec. 13, and they've won three in a row.
I have no problem admitting I was skeptical before the season began when it came to Florida's playoff chances, but they're slowly winning me over. Thanks in large part to the play of goalie Roberto Luongo, rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad and third-year center Nick Bjugstad, we're starting to see some serious progress from an organization that's been all but bereft of it for the past two decades. Considering team ownership desperately needs to see a strong on-ice showing in order to help rebuild trust with the ticket-buying public, it couldn't have come at a better time for it.
What stands in the Panthers' way from their first post-season appearance since 2012 (and only the second since 1999-2000)? The same things that stand in the way of most bubble playoff teams:
good health, as they don't yet have the organizational depth to withstand a catastrophic injury to one or two key players; and consistency (they didn't string together their first two-game win streak this year until winning games on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1). Their power play is the pits (it's ranked second-last in the league at 13.3 percent), and they give up too many shots. They've also got some potential trouble spots in the schedule to keep an eye on – namely, two five-game road trips: the first comes at the end of February, when they take on Montreal, Pittsburgh and Chicago in the first game of a home-and-home series; and the second is an intra-divisional road trip (featuring games against Tampa Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston) at the end of March that could make April a moot point for them, or could vault them higher into a divisional playoff spot ahead of, say, the Red Wings.
Now, the Panthers have won more road games (11) than home (9) this year, so there's room to believe they can survive those road trips. This Cats squad has played the most shootout games (10) in the league so far – at least two more than any other team in the Eastern Conference – because it's got some resiliency to it. They don't roll over nearly as easily as Panthers teams did in the past. The bad luck that's haunted the franchise isn't tearing into it again. Things just feel different, and although part of that is the responsibility coach Gerard Gallant has offloaded onto the team's veterans, part of it is the aura of the team is changing. At long last, youngsters such as Aleksander Barkov, Bjugstad, Jimmy Hayes and Ekblad can envision a long-term future for themselves in South Florida, and their confidence on the ice is showing.
There's still a half-season of hockey to be played, but Florida's excruciating gestation period may – may – be coming to a close. With a new ownership group determined to give it an honest go in the marketplace and GM Dale Tallon demonstrating his success with the Blackhawks was no fluke, the Panthers are building momentum on and off the ice after years of only building the case for NHL contraction. Their young players will need to continue developing to sustain this optimism, but barring a slew of brain cramp-riddled trades from management, Panthers fans look to have good days ahead for quite some time.