By JEFF LINGARD
In my first post here I wondered how the Florida Panthers were the 3rd seed in the East when they are average to mediocre across the statistical board.
The Panthers answered with a 5 game winning streak punctuated by a win in Philadelphia where they had lost 5-0 a couple of weeks before. At that point it looked like the Panthers were a lock to not only make the playoffs but win the division by a healthy margin. Three straight losses to Carolina, the Islanders and Edmonton coupled with Buffalo starting a five game winning streak and the Capitals playing better has put their spot in doubt.
Luckily, Scott Clemmensen played an excellent game and was stellar in the shootout in Montreal on Tuesday night and the Sabres beat the Capitals so the Panthers maintain their 5 point lead on the Capitals for the Southeast Division lead and likely the division’s only playoff spot.
My darkest fears are that the Panthers might be similar to the seasons that the Atlanta Thrashers and the Columbus Blue Jackets have made the playoffs. Those teams were swept in the first round and were also rans the next season. Atlanta couldn’t recover and are now in Winnipeg. There are two reasons why I don’t think the Panthers will turn into the next If Atlanta/Columbus situation:
1. The Panthers did not make a significant move at the deadline that mortgaged the future like Atlanta did with the trades for Keith Tkachuk and Alexi Zhitnik.
2. The Panthers have arguably the best group of prospects in the league that will add impact players over the next 2 to 3 years.
The schedule does help the Panthers over their final 6 games as Detroit is the only playoff team remaining. If the Panthers can beat Minnesota and Columbus back to back this week it should solidify their playoff spot. Kevin Dineen needs to push some buttons to bring some urgency back into their game as the Panthers needed their goaltending to steal two points from the 14th team in the East on Tuesday night. If the Panthers play in the playoffs like they have the last 4 games then New Jersey will sweep them in the first round just like in 2000.
If the Panthers are going to make the playoffs, every player needs to be productive. There have been too many players, especially forwards, who do not give a consistent effort or production to justify their spot in the lineup. The Panthers need secondary scoring because New Jersey’s strategy will be to shut down the Weiss line and Campbell/Garrison and make the other nine forwards score.
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