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Around the Atlantic: The playoffs are still within reach, but can the Florida Panthers get there?

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And could we see the Battle of Florida in the first round of the playoffs?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The All-Star break is usually a pretty good indication of where a team sits heading into the last part of the season. The trade deadline looms large, and teams have to decide whether they’re buyers or sellers. With some teams, it’s obvious. For middling teams, though, like the Florida Panthers, it’s a little more difficult.

Right now, the Panthers sit third-last in the Atlantic, ten points away from the last wildcard playoff spot. They lost seven straight games before turning it around — winning their last three games and heading into the break on a high note.

It begs the question: should Florida make a run for the playoffs anyways? Or should they just wait until next season? It would take a massive stretch run from here until the end of March to leap over the three or four teams that stand in their way at the moment. But if the Panthers can do it, there’s a very good chance we could get a first-round Battle of Florida matchup — for the first time, ever.

Unlucky With Injuries

Florida’s forward depth took a huge hit when Vincent Trocheck fractured his ankle back in November. The fact that he needed surgery to repair the damage didn’t bode well for a quick return, at the time. However, Trocheck’s recovery period was miraculously short, and he returned to the Panthers lineup almost exactly two months after he sustained the injury. Trocheck’s return coincided with the start of the Panthers’ win-streak, and he made an immediate impact. He assisted on the game-winner against Toronto, added two points the next night against Nashville, and topped it off with his fourth point in three games against San Jose.

Florida’s biggest question mark this season has been in goal. Roberto Luongo injured his knee in the season-opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and missed nearly a month’s worth of games. He then suffered another knee injury at the end of November against Carolina, and missed an additional five games. Luongo’s injuries have resulted in him splitting time with James Reimer as the starter, and the inconsistency in both personnel and their performances in goal have contributed to Florida’s up-and-down stretch.

Should They Make a Run?

Despite losing Trocheck for two months, Panthers forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Mike Hoffman have had offensively prolific seasons. Huberdeau leads the team in scoring with 49 points in 48 games. Barkov, who is a perennial Lady Byng candidate, has only taken one penalty this season, despite drawing 23 penalties (which leads the league). With 23 goals and 42 points this season, Hoffman is on pace to set new career-highs in both categories.

If the Panthers can get a handle on their goaltending situation, they could very well make a go of it. During their losing streak, Luongo had a save percentage of .868%. Reimer didn’t fare much better (.881%). However, the Panthers finally got solid goaltending in their three games leading up to the break (.952% against Toronto, .949% against Nashville, and .931% against San Jose).

As far as advanced stats go, Florida has the worst PDO in the league at the moment. They’re also pretty far down in terms of goal scoring, and their goaltending numbers are rough. But their possession numbers are strong, and their luck is bound to change. The Panthers seem poised for a rebound second-half of the season — which bodes well for a playoff push.

Granted, the team would likely need a Lightning-esque win-streak (or month) to make a legitimate push, but it’s not impossible. They have the tools necessary to make the playoffs. Good goaltending, healthy players, and a little help from others in the division could vault them into playoff spot contention. The next month after the break is pivotal. The NHL Trade Deadline is February 25th. How the Panthers fare in the next few weeks is what will decide whether they make the push or prepare for the draft lottery. Whatever version of Florida comes out of the bye-week, up until the trade deadline, will determine how their season wraps up.

Battle of Florida: Playoff Edition?

So let’s say that Florida does leap into that last East wildcard spot. Barring some horrible unforseen circumstances, the Lightning are likely too far ahead for anyone to catch up with. If Florida squeezes into the playoffs as the last wildcard, it would set up a Lightning-Panthers playoff series for the first time in NHL history.

The Panthers are winless against the Lightning this season in three games (0-1-2). Their fourth and final meeting is February 10th. Despite the record, though, Florida has played some great games against Tampa. They’ve outshot the Bolts in two of the games (including the game where the Panthers lost 7-3) — surpassing 40 shots in both affairs. Luongo has yet to start and finish a game against the Lightning this season — he was pulled twice (once due to injury), and Reimer started the third game.

The Lightning have proven this season that they have no problems exploiting goaltending — whether it’s an opponent’s weakness or not. But they can be shut down by goalie who stands on his head (much like Frederik Andersen for the Leafs last week). It may be a lot to ask of a 39-year old goaltender, but stranger things have happened, and it wouldn’t be the Stanley Cup playoffs without a little chaos.

A Battle of Florida playoff series would give the rivalry a whole new meaning. It would be great for hockey in the state, and set the stage for more series’ down the road. The Panthers and Lightning rarely ever play a boring hockey game, and I trust a playoff series would be no different. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.