As the Florida Panthers enter All-Star Break, a look at where they stand in the playoff race
The Florida Panthers know where they stand. They know the task ahead of them. They know it won’t be easy.
But they also know, weak as it is, that they have a chance.
Coming off a thrilling 4-3 overtime win over the Boston Bruins on Saturday – a victory in which Aleksander Barkov tied the game with less than three seconds left in regulation time and Sam Reinhart scored the winner 17 seconds later. overtime – Florida enters the All-Star Break with a 24-22-6 record.
The Panthers remain on the outskirts of a wildcard berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They’re not far enough behind the competition yet to be shut out with two and a half months remaining in the regular season.
They’re also far enough behind that they basically need a perfect run over that final 30-game sprint to sneak into the playoffs.
“Why else would you be in hockey?” said Panthers coach Paul Maurice. “What else is it? Games don’t necessarily mean anything to the top three or four teams or the bottom three or four, but the rest of us live every day as if it were the last one is a good way to go.
What the playoff field looks like
And unlike last season, when the Eastern Conference playoff field was essentially decided in late January, there’s still quite an open race this season.
The top three teams in each conference are more or less decided. The Bruins (38-6-5, 81 points), Toronto Maple Leafs (30-12-8, 68 points) and Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-1, 65 points) all have a huge lead over the rest of the Atlantic Division. Same with the Carolina Hurricanes (31-9-8, 70 points), New Jersey Devils (32-13-4, 68 points) and New York Rangers (27-14-8, 62 points) in the Metropolitan Division.
But there is theoretically a six-team race for the two wildcard spots.
Starting Sunday, the Washington Capitals (26-19-6, 58 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (24-16-9, 57 points) occupy the top two spots. Buffalo (26-19-3, 55 points) trails the Panthers (54 points), New York Islanders (24-22-5, 53 points) and Detroit Red Wings (21-19-8, 50 points) closely. dots).
While Florida is only three points away in pure numbers, it’s worth noting that Florida has played more games than each of those teams it competes with for playoff positioning, meaning that she has fewer points to win. The Panthers’ .519 point percentage is actually sixth among the six teams.
But with all of these teams relatively close together, there will be a fight until the end just to get into the playoffs.
“Teams that do will be legitimate teams,” Maurice said. “They will have played and learned to deal with adversity and will be tough enough to have a legitimate chance to win.”
How the Panthers got here
Maurice, of course, hopes his Panthers will be among those eight teams that come out of the Eastern Conference.
And, in his opinion, his team has been battle tested and cut through in the first 52 games of their season.
Mainstays have been in and out of the lineup all season.
Top defender Aaron Ekblad missed 11 games early with a groin injury. Star center and team captain Aleksander Barkov has missed 10 games in 19 games – the first seven due to illness, the last three with a lower-body injury. Defender Radko Gudas has missed 10 games with a concussion. Wing-turned-center Anton Lundell has missed nine games due to illness and a lower-body injury. And top goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have both missed extended time, including both being unavailable for Florida’s last five games.
They are coming off a grueling January schedule — 15 games with three straight series, nine total on the road and no more than two games at a time at home — with an 8-5-2 record, winning 60 percent of points at their disposal to help them keep their heads above water in the hunt for the playoffs.
“They played their asses this month,” Maurice said, “And we can build from that.”
The last straight line
The last 30 games of the Panthers, on paper, turn to their advantage. They play 18 of those games at home. That includes a streak from Feb. 20 to March 18 in which they play nine of 10 games at the FLA Live Arena, with the only road game in that streak being at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Florida is 13-7-3 at home this season.
The team should also be close to full strength to begin the back stretch. Maurice said on Saturday he hoped Bobrovsky and Knight would be back in shape when they return from the All-Star break. Winger Anthony Duclair, who has yet to play this season as he recovered from Achilles surgery during the offseason, is also trending towards a return after the break.
“Regardless of who’s in and who’s out, the most important thing isn’t really the individual staff; it’s the toughness of the group,” said Maurice. “It’s something that can be learned. To be a strong team, you have to be tough. You have to go through what we went through and be resilient.