Florida Panthers: The Stanley Cup dark-horse

(Photo credit: Christophe95)

On January 8th of this year Florida had a mere 8% chance of making the playoffs, this followed three defeats to start the year. They then won just two of their next six to leave them with no hope of the playoffs unless a miracle occurred.

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Now the Panthers have won 15 of their last 19 games and sit just three points outside of a Wildcard spot with games to spare on their nearest rivals. To top it all off, their victory against New York Rangers on Saturday was their eighth consecutive at home - a new franchise record. 


Top players performing 

One of the main reasons for the Panthers uptake in form is the performances of their best players. Aleksander Barkov is the face of the Panthers and the young center has contributed magnificently during their impressive home winning streak, he has five goals and seven assists at BB&T center over the last eight home games.

Barkov heads a list of three forwards in their early 20s who are making huge strides in the Sunshine State. 24-year-old Vincent Trocheck has 62 points this season and Jonathan Huberdeau has 61 points this season.

Playing on their defense, the Panthers can rely on Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad to score big points and play big minutes. The pair play over 23 minutes per night and provide an anchor for the team to win games. 

Roberto Luongo - the fine wine

James Reimer held down the fort reasonably this season when Roberto Luongo went down with an injury early in the season. His 16-13-5 record was decent and kept the Panthers within touching distance of the playoffs. 

However Luongo has been outstanding since returning from injury and looks like he is rolling back the years with some unbelievable numbers. He has a 14-7-2 record this year and a mindbogglingly good .930 save percentage. His 2.51 goals against average is nearly one less than his back up James Reimer. 

Simply put Luongo has been pivotal in the Panthers rise up the league.


The schedule

The Panthers have a great chance making the playoffs because they have a kind schedule. They have eight home games left and another eight to play away from BB&T center. But it is the opponents which make their final 16 games interesting. 

Here is the breakdown of their easier games:

Ottawa Senators (three games), Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. 

That makes nine games against sides that are currently not in the playoffs. Other games left to play include three games against the Boston Bruins who may have half an eye on the playoffs and Columbus in what could be one of the most important games of the season. 

So will the Panthers make the playoffs?

Well, on current point percentages the Panthers would be sat in the first wildcard spot - they have a .568 and the Devils have a .565 while Columbus has a .558. So really, the Panthers are occupying a playoff spot but are sat outside because they have so many games left to play compared to those around them.

The fact that Florida has been put themselves in such a good position means that this team are hungry. They could easily have thrown the towel in after a slow start to 2018 but they didn’t. They kept fighting and are now reaping the benefits since they are in a playoff race that nobody could ever of dreamed of just two months ago.

If the Panthers can finish in that first wildcard spot then they should be drawn with the Tampa Bay Lightning for a first ever all Florida playoff game. That is a matchup that makes the mouth water.