The Florida Panthers are red-hot and tantalizingly close to a wild card spot that seemed pretty distant just a month ago. It’s an amazing turnaround for a squad that appeared to be destined for heartbreak again and while the work isn’t done yet, going 13-3 in their past 16 games (including an ongoing six-game win streak) is a great sign.
So why have the Cats woken up? Well, hockey is a team game and as such, there have been many notable contributors.
One of the biggest stabilizers has been star goalie Roberto Luongo, who has won six of seven starts since returning to the lineup from a lower body injury. Such ailments certainly contributed to Florida’s earlier flailing, as both Luongo and fellow veteran James Reimer have been banged up. At one point, the Panthers had to call up youngster Samuel Montembeault to back up third-stringer Harri Sateri – something they weren’t anxious to do, given that Montembeault is playing his first season of pro hockey.
Sateri himself deserves credit for saving Florida’s season. Though he is back in the minors now, the Finnish netminder put together four straight wins in late January/early February, helping Florida pull out of a tailspin.
But a lot of the credit for the recent en fuego play has to go to the top line, spearheaded by center Aleksander Barkov. It’s been pretty well established by now that Barkov is one of the most talented two-way players in the game right now, capable of highlight-reel goals and taking on tough defensive assignments all at once. He’s been logging a heavy workload during this run of good play (including a season-high 27:27 in an overtime win versus Toronto) and the big pivot has been particularly fruitful of late, notching points in all six of Florida’s recent wins. And he’s not alone. Linemate Evgenii Dadonov is proving that you can indeed get a second chance at NHL success with his own great play. Dadonov has four multi-point games in his past five outings and at this rate, he may finish the season as a point-per-gamer. That’s pretty good for a veteran who took a five-season KHL holiday since his last North American campaign.
With players such as Jonathan Huberdeau and Vince Trocheck also contributing up front, the Cats are in a good place right now. Florida’s stable of talent can shock teams with quick-strike stretch passes and the finishers have the deft hands to cash in on those opportunities.
Looking at the rest of Florida’s schedule reveals a golden road headed towards the playoffs. Already in a wild card slot, the Panthers have 19 games left on the schedule, nine of which are against opponents with nothing to play for but lottery positioning (Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo, Arizona and the Rangers). Two of the final three games are against Boston, a team that, at that point, will likely rest key players as the Bruins prepare for what could be a very nice playoff run themselves.
Even better for the Panthers is the fact that the teams they are chasing – New Jersey and Columbus – have three fewer games left on the schedule. In fact, one extra win would vault Florida over the Blue Jackets, while two would also put them ahead of the Devils.
Carolina, which is also chasing a wild card spot, only has 16 games remaining, too.
Which is a long way of saying that Florida’s recent surge is having a tremendously negative impact on the Metropolitan Division. I think most of us assumed the Atlantic would be a three-team playoff division this spring, but Florida would even things up in the East. Columbus seemed like a pretty easy team to pick for a playoff berth, while New Jersey has been one of the best stories of the year. Now that’s all in flux.
While the Jackets and Devils have cooled down at the wrong time, Florida is the hottest team in the conference. Can the Panthers keep the good times rolling all the way to the post-season?