It's been a long time since the Florida Panthers were a legitimate topic of conversation at this point of the season regarding the playoffs.
"Playoffs? You wanna talk about playoffs?"
I said it, the playoffs. Beginning with General Manager Dale Tallon's Salary Cap floor scramble of 2011, the Panthers have put the pieces together for what would last year have been considered an impossible playoff run. Fans of Florida are long suffering, it's well noted. Victims of ten consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff-less seasons in South Florida, Panther faithful are being rewarded for their patience, and being joined by bandwagoneers of the strangest variety...
Until the last moment, the question in the air was, "Are we buyers or sellers at the trading deadline?" Unlike other teams, Tallon made sure to shore up some deficiencies as the team headed into the NHL stretch run. Trading one prospect and several lower round draft choices for Jerred Smithson (a third line center and faceoff specialist) from the Nashville Predators, and Wojtek Wolski (a second or third line scoring winger) from the New York Rangers.
The return of some familiar faces behind the blueline has added some well timed punch to the Panthers goal scoring prowess. Ranked 4, 5, and 6 on the team earlier in the season, Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison, and Dmitri Kulikov led the Panther's top ranked scoring defense. Injuries felled Kulikov, Garrison, and long time veteran Ed Jovanovski, necessitating an en-masse callup from San Antonio. For a while there, the Panthers D-group featured Mike Weaver, Campbell, and....some guys. The return of Jovanovski from a broken hand, and surprise goal scoring threat Garrison has the defense again looking aggressive and the Panthers again looking like legitimate candidates for a deep playoff run. His 14 goals rank second for defensemen in the NHL, despite having missed the last two weeks due to injury.
Speaking of the playoffs, it may come down to the Panthers hitting a winning streak at the right time. A .500 record for their last 20 games will almost certainly assure them of a playoff berth, three games above, say a 10-7-3, will net them the three seed. They've been extremely streaky since the All-Star break, winning two, losing two, winning three, losing four, and currently winning three more. They were 16-8-4 through their first 28 games, and looking like NHL elite on some nights. What followed was a 24 game stretch where the team maintained their tenuous hold on the NHL Southeast Division lead despite posting a disappointing 8-9-7 record. Since then, the Cats have gone 6-3-1 and are now poised for their first four game winning streak in four years. Historically, the Panthers cannot win four in a row, as this will be their 15th chance since March of 2008. This may be the difference between what they are doing this year and what they haven't done in years past. Their chance will come against the Winnipeg Jets, a team against whom the Panthers have played their best hockey against, posting a 3-0-1 record thus far.
The only thing that's kind of bad timing for the Panthers is the recent injury to Kris Versteeg .Kris Versteeg has OWNED the Jets this season, especially in Winnipeg. Through two games he has five goals, two assists, a shootout goal and a plus-6 rating. Versteeg wants to play through it, but was discouraged by coach Kevin Dineen from aggravating his lower body injury, and did not make the current Canadian road trip.
One more thing that bodes well for the Panthers going into the playoffs later this season, their road record. While 13 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams can boast a winning home record, the Panthers are one of only seven to have a winning road record. Unless you are the New York Rangers, who will undoubtedly own home ice advantage through the playoffs, you need to win on the road. Incidentally, the Washington Capitals are NOT one of the aforementioned seven.
Tallon has the pieces in place, Dineen makes sure the Cats have the best chance to win every night, and fans are talking in Sunrise about a possible return to glory. Is this the year? The Panthers have already equalled last season's win and point totals, 30 and 72, with 20 games remaining. Now that the trading deadline has passed, and there won't be any roster movement, all we can do is sit back and see if this Panther team is the one to finally break this embarrassing record playoff drought.