At the start of the season, if I were to pitch this headline, there’s a good chance I’d have been laughed at.
Sure, the reigning Presidents Trophy winners went through quite the overhaul on their roster over the summer, but surely the Florida Panthers still had enough talent to not be worrying about making the playoffs.
Well, at just over the halfway mark into the season, this headline, unfortunately for Panthers fans, is very applicable.
Panthers Face Steep Climb in Wild Card Push
The Panthers started this week four points shy of the final wild card position. A recent hot streak had catapulted the Panthers up the standings and they were now in striking distance to grab that coveted wild card spot.
But picking up four points was going to be easier said than done. The Panthers were staring down a brutal back-to-back scenario. The Cats would hit the road for a Monday date with the New York Rangers, followed by a dance with the Pittsburgh Penguins the very next night.
The task was tall but the reward, should they win, would be huge.
You see, both the Rangers and Penguins are teams just ahead of the Panthers. The Rangers sat third in the Metropolitan Division with 57 points and the Penguins held the final Wild Card spot with 54 points.
Should everything have played out in the Panthers’ favor, they could have leapfrogged themselves into that final playoff spot before the week’s end.
Unfortunately, for the Panthers, favor was against them.
The result… two straight losses.
The Panthers would get tripled up by the Rangers, 6-2, and lose in an overtime thriller, 7-6, to the Pens.
Every game is critical for the Panthers but these two, especially, held some added significance.
The Panthers are chasing both these teams and they only play each team one more time. And both the Rangers and Pens have games in hand on the Cats.
But despite this greatly missed opportunity, there is still time and hope for the Panthers. Their margin of error, however, just got that much smaller.
Breaking Down The Remainder Of Their Season
Before the Panthers’ latest two losses, they had sported a nice 7-2-1 record in a recent 10-game stretch. That success boosted their playoff chances from 25%, prior to the run, to 54% (according to moneypuck.com).
Today, after two straight losses, they have a 42.6% chance of making the playoffs.
Here’s a quick look at the teams they are chasing:
New York Rangers = 68.3%
Washington Capitals = 66.8%
Pittsburgh Penguins = 63%
Buffalo Sabres = 42.6%
Now, don’t be discouraged by those numbers if you are a Panthers fan, they are quite volatile. As the Panthers’ recent run showed us, a little winning streak can turn that bleakness into brightness, in just a few games.
So what is the likeliness that the Panthers put together another big run and their opponents go on a cooler?
Well, there are a lot of variables at hand but a good place to start is looking at the team’s strength of schedule (SOS)
The Panthers sit middle of the pack (10th) in the Eastern Conference for SOS.
And when you look a little closer, you can see some obvious benefits to their remaining schedule, as well as some potential hardships.
First off, a major benefit is the majority of their travel is out of the way.
All of their west coast road trips are over and of their remaining 32 games, 20 are at home. A rested team is what’s going to be needed, especially as they battle another round of injuries.
They also have nine games left to play against the league’s bottom nine teams. You can never take a team for granted in the NHL but a favorable matchup is still a favorable matchup. And the Panthers will take as many as they can get.
And despite failing to make up ground on the teams ahead of them this week, the Cats still have six games left against teams directly ahead of them in the Wild Card race.
Great opportunities to take advantage of those “4-point” games and make up some significant ground.
Now on the flip side, the two teams holding the final playoff spots in the East (Capitals and Penguins), both have an easier SOS for the rest of the season.
And there’s the fact that every team the Panthers are chasing, other than the Caps, have games in hand on the Cats.
And to make matters worse, the Penguins still have two games remaining against the Capitals and three versus the Rangers. That is a lot of opportunity for those dreaded three-point games that could cripple the Panthers’ playoff chances.
But most worrisome of all, the Panthers still have five more sets of back-to-backs. And those back-to-back games have not been fair to the Panthers this season.
Their record in such games is a disastrous 3-11. And of those seven back-to-back series they’ve played thus far, they have only won the second game once.
They don’t start well or finish strong. And most of those games aren’t even close. The Panthers have been outscored in back-to-backs 62-47. That’s a decent goals-for-per-game of 3.36, but a horrendous 4.43 goals-against average.
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This means the Panthers will need to average a 0.69 points percentage the rest of the way to have a chance.
If we factor in their season average of 0.28 points percentage in their back-to-backs this season, then the Panthers will need to average a monstrous 0.88 points percentage in all other games.
So basically they’ll need to become the Boston Bruins.
Now, if the Panthers can manage to go .500 in those dreaded back-to-backs, then they’ll “only” need a 0.77 points percentage.
Still a lot but definitely more manageable.
Don’t Stop Believing
I never said it was going to be easy. The hill to climb is a steep one but not impossible. Teams have faced stiffer tests and have come out on top. The same can be done for the Panthers.
The light is not out on their season. And if you’re looking for that silver lining, here it is. No matter if the Panthers make the playoffs, every game from here on out will have the same intensity, pressure, and excitement as a playoff game.
So at least we know we’ll get some exciting hockey from here on out.
Let’s just hope the Panthers will be playing the real playoff games come springtime.
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