The Florida Panthers sit two points out of a playoff spot through 30 games. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Before we start building the Florida Panther bandwagon, let’s get a few things out of the way.
The Panthers’ top scorer is a defenseman who is not in the top 16 point-getters among blueliners league wide. And he’s going to be traded before March. He is Jay Bouwmeester.
The only forward who has consistently produced offense for the team over the past too many years has already been dealt to Phoenix. He is Olli Jokinen.
Their backup is their starter, golf is always an alternative to working out for their players and they just seem morally opposed to making the playoffs.
Are you feeling that Hollywood script develop yet? I believe Florida is the second-best team in its division, which would be a much bolder statement if they didn’t play in the Southeast. I also think they can make the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was in office.
Since you already know about Craig Anderson, here are three additional reasons to believe in the Panthers.
Schedule - November was a rough one for the Panthers, with nine of 14 games away from sunny South Florida. But they can bust out the sunscreen in the New Year – the Cats have seven home games between Jan. 8 and Jan. 29 with their only road trip a simple jaunt up to Tampa Bay.
Speaking of the Lighting, Florida plays Tampa and Atlanta – two positively wretched teams – eight more times combined this year. While Carolina, one of the teams the Panthers will battle for the No. 8 seed, also benefits from those gimmies, teams like Buffalo and Toronto don’t have the same advantage.
Mercy from the injury bug - The only reason Bouwmeester is Florida’s leading scorer is because its forwards (and defense) have been so banged up. David Booth was on pace for 39 goals (but somehow only six assists) before he missed seven games with an injured shoulder. He’s expected back for Thursday’s big game versus the Hurricanes, as is Nathan Horton, who’s been out since Nov. 28 with an ankle injury.
Tough defender Bryan Allen is still out indefinitely with a knee injury, but Bryan McCabe has quietly produced four goals and 12 points in 20 games since missing 10 contests with a back injury.
Cory Stillman has also drawn back in the lineup recently after missing half the season with a concussion and all that guy does is put up points in non-traditional hockey markets.
As the infirmary empties, more wins will come.
The push has already begun - Florida usually waits until about February before displaying any kind of awareness that you have to win games to make the playoffs. But after another poor start to the season, the wins are already coming before Santa has even made his rounds.
The Panthers have dropped just two of their past eight contests, meaning they will surely start the new year neck-and-neck with the eight ball they’re typically chasing hopelessly by then.
That will negate the annual, unrealistic need to bat 1.000 in March and create the distinct possibility of hockey in Florida well into April.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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