The Florida Panthers haven’t had much success since their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. The franchise has made the playoffs a total of four times during its 22-year history but only once in the last 14 seasons. Slowly but surely, the tides have been changing in South Florida over the past few years. Florida hired general manager Dale Tallon in 2010 and since then he has been building the team through the draft, bringing in lots of young talent knowing that eventually the players would be ready to succeed at the NHL level.
During the past few seasons fans have seen Tallon’s vision start coming into focus as the youth movement is starting to take over in Florida. The young core of Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson and Aaron Ekblad (all Panthers draft picks) are just a handful of the plethora young talent that is going to carry the franchise for years to come.
The 2014-15 season is the first one that the young core has started to really take those next steps in becoming stars in the league, and it’s no coincidence that the team has had a good amount of success this season as well. The Panthers have been right in the thick of the playoff picture throughout the campaign and now find themselves extremely close to a rare postseason birth.
Coming into Tuesday’s games, Florida is two points back of the final playoff spot currently being held by the Boston Bruins. The Panthers have 19 games remaining on their schedule including three head-to-head matches with Boston, so their playoff destiny is certainly in their own hands. Aside from winning as many games as possible, here are the top things that the Panthers must do in order to make the playoffs.
Score More Goals
This is the most obvious of the obvious things that Florida has got to do if they want to reach the playoffs. The Panthers have been one of the lowest scoring teams in the league this year, currently averaging 2.35 goals per game which ranks them 25th out of 30 teams. The shortage in goals doesn’t come from a lack of opportunities as Florida is 9th in the league in shots per game, putting up 31.0. Still, the team needs to start finishing those chances and doing so will be a huge factor in playing late-April hockey.
The Panthers have seen a recent surge in goals, netting nine in their past two games, both wins. It’s no coincidence that the team has had newly acquired veteran scorer Jaromir Jagr and young sniper Brandon Pirri in the lineup for those two games, both of whom will be counted on for more of the same during the final stretch run. The talent is certainly in place for the Panthers to put up more goals but the team will need to deliver, which is always easier said than done.
Play Stronger On Special Teams
For pretty much all of the season Florida’s power play has been at the bottom of the league. They’ve played much better with the man advantage since the All-Star break and the addition of Jagr should help things along, but the unit has got to be consistently good both to get in the playoffs and to succeed thereafter.
The same can be said for the Panthers penalty killing, which has been strong for periods throughout the season but again, lacks in consistency. The loss of captain Willie Mitchell has been tough to take as he is one of the best penalty killers on the team but he is expected back in the lineup later this week. Role players like Derek MacKenzie and Tomas Kopecky are key elements in the Cats penalty kill unit and must get back to playing as strongly as they did earlier in the season.
Continue To Get Solid Goaltending
There is little doubt that the Panthers MVP this season is their goalie, Roberto Luongo. The veteran goalie will celebrate his 36th birthday less than two weeks before the start of the 2015 NHL Playoffs but Luongo has shown to be one of the few professional athletes that can play just as well in his late-30’s as he did in his late 20’s.
Florida has also gotten strong play from backup goalie Al Montoya, especially over the past couple months. His game still needs some refinement but Montoya does what’s necessary and keeps his team in a position to win every time he starts for the Panthers. Both will be relied on heavily down the stretch, especially if Florida has trouble turning around their scoring woes.
Get Healthy And Stay That Way
Overall this season the Panthers have been fortunate not to have suffered any major injuries, though there have still been some valuable players that have missed extended periods of time. Free agent signing Dave Bolland has missed the most time out of anyone this year but is expected back in the lineup sometime in the next week or two. I’ve already mentioned the injury to Mitchell and how valuable he is to have in the lineup, and perhaps the scoring problems wouldn’t be as glaring if Pirri hadn’t missed time after suffering a concussion earlier in the season as it took him a while before he could regain his scoring touch.
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