One month from today the NHL regular season will end. The Florida Panthers were on very few preseason lists to win the Southeast Division this season. In fact, most had them listed as fourth or fifth. Even with a month to go many think the Cats will still come off the tracks and miss out on the dance.
But here we are in March, and Florida is still leading the Southeast Division. The Panthers currently lead the hard charging Winnipeg Jets by two points, the fast fading Washington Capitals by four, the suddenly resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning by six and the last chance Carolina Hurricanes by ten. All this with games in hand on everyone in the division. Two on the Jets and one on the other three. According to www.sportsclubstats.com, the Panthers currently have an 83.3% chance to qualify for the playoffs. For success in the season's last month, a few things still have to happen for Florida.
Earlier in the season, the Panthers had seven starting forwards out to injury. After getting most of them back, half of the starting defensemen were shelved with various ailments. The Panthers currently have lost 291 man-games to injury, but have recovered most of their important players. Brian Campbell, Mike Weaver and Tomas Fleischmann have appeared in every game thus far, and Scottie Upshall, Dmitry Kulikov and top scorer Kris Versteeg are all soon to return.
(Lack of) Competition:
After starting out the season 7-0-0, the Caps forgot how to play. Since then, they've posted a pathetic 25-28-6 record, bad enough to fall out of the Eastern Conference top eight. They continue to fall apart, dropping last night's matchup with the surging (but too far gone) Carolina Hurricanes in overtime. The Jets and the Bolts are each playing their best hockey of the season. It makes for good copy, but both teams are fighting an uphill battle to catch the Panthers. That's not to say it can't happen, there are still 14 games between the five teams remaining to be played, and that alone (in a bubble) would be enough games for anyone to catch up.
Despite a few hiccups, the Panthers have had a solid season out of their goaltending corps. With backup Scott Clemmensen starting the season on the DL, we got a good long look at the future in the Florida crease, "The Alien" Jacob Markstrom. In two stints with the club he has posted a 2.66 GAA with a .923 save percentage and a misleading W-L record of 2-4-1. Markstrom was composed and at times spectacular for Florida. Clemmensen returned to action for Florida with a 25 save shutout on November 15th against the Dallas Stars. He won his first three starts en route to his current record of 11-5-6. Jose Theodore has also exceeded expectations. He has thus far collected an 18-12-6 record with a .918 save percentage and 2.45 GAA. What was initially believed to be Florida's achilles heel is the very thing that is keeping the Panthers hanging on. With a goal differential of minus-21 and the offense struggling to score 2.2 goals per game, goaltending has been the most consistent aspect of the Florida game.
There's no 23-man limit to the roster after the trade deadline, so Florida is now free to exercise a more liberal strategy when filling up the bench. We may see the recall of forwards Jon Matsumoto and Michal Repik and defensemen Colby Robak and Nolan Yonkman, as well as the return of Markstrom.
The Bottom Line:
They say bottom feeders, I say division leaders. Some may say that the Southeast Division is the worst in the NHL, but it may just be the most compelling as the season runs out. With a .500 record, again according to Sports Club Stats, the Panthers have a 95 percent chance of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Finals. Stay tuned for the most relevant NHL pennant chase in over a decade in South Florida.