If the Florida Panthers were told at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season that the team would be sitting atop the Southeast Division with 17 games left to play, they surely couldn't imagine their season playing out much better. Due to all the new faces assembled by general manager Dale Tallon in the offseason, many people weren't sure whether this team would be a solid, playoff caliber team or a horrendous mix up of spare parts a la Frankenstein's monster. With more than three quarters of the season in the books, it's clear that this team is playoff worthy when healthy and even has a chance to make a little noise in the NHL's second season if they can hold onto the three seed.
Still, what's not clear is whether this team will live up to its' potential and actually make the playoffs. When the Panthers are playing their style at a top level, they are a fast, puck possession oriented team that outworks their opponents in all facets of the game. Unfortunately, this is not always the Panthers team that shows up at the rink. The "other" Panthers team is a team that is languid, unprepared and dreadful to watch.
On any given night, either Panthers team could show up. Some nights, the Panthers will crush teams as they did November 15th against the Dallas Stars, winning 6-0, or on February 12th when they manhandled the New York Islanders 4-1. Yet, there's always the possibility the Panthers will come out like they did on December 11th when the got annihilated 6-1 by the New York Rangers and, just recently, on March 1st when they were trounced 7-0 by the Winnipeg Jets.
Even stranger, sometimes both Panthers teams will appear in the same game as they did March 4th against the Ottawa Senators. In the fist period, the Panthers lacked the energy and the desperation needed against a streaking team that was currently above them in the standings. It was no surprise to anyone watching that the Panthers quickly found themselves down 2-0 after the first period as they were clearly being outplayed. Just when you were ready to write them off, though, they came out in the second like their collective hair was on fire, scoring three unanswered goals and then adding a fourth in the third period to beat the Senators 4-2 in a crucial game at home.
The results over the past month show a team that is the definition of inconsistency. Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have won two, lost two, won three, lost four, won three, lost two and won their most recent. They have yet to string a four game win streak together this season. To put that into perspective, the Detroit Red Wings recently won 23 straight home games. Even the lowly Montreal Canadiens have managed a four game win streak this season, and they've done it twice.
Without a doubt, there are reasons for the Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde type of play the Panthers have suffered from this season. The main one is that the Panthers have rarely been fully healthy, with a whopping total of 291 games lost to injury as of March 4th. Another reason is that the Panthers have had periods of time where their key players have been in prolonged slumps. Whether due to being overworked from having to pick up the slack for injured teammates, or fighting nagging injuries themselves, the Panthers top guns can ill afford these types of slumps as the Panthers are tied for 23rd in the league in goals scored per game as of Tuesday night. Without consistent goal scoring, it's difficult for the Panthers to give themselves a chance to win every night because they lack the presence in goal of a Henrik Lundqvist or Jonathan Quick, goalies that can steal a game on any given night.
What may be most troubling, though, is that the Panthers have often come out flat in the most crucial games. Recently, the Panthers have had the opportunity to put considerable cushion between themselves and the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets, who are both nipping at their heels. However, the Panthers squandered their past two games against the Capitals and were crushed in the previously mentioned last meeting with the Jets. It is frustrating and perhaps a bit ominous that the team cannot get itself up for games that have a playoff type of atmosphere.
While this Panthers season has been the most exciting of recent memory, it's clear that if one thing can be said with certainty about this Panthers team, it's that they are consistently inconsistent. The Panthers can only hope they've saved their biggest winning streak in years for the end of this season. If, by some benevolent blessing bestowed upon them by the hockey gods, the Panthers could rattle off even an eight game win streak, they could basically guarantee themselves a playoff berth. Don't hold your breath.