Florida Panthers end-of-season playoff push: Here we go again

It's the final month of the NHL season, which means it's time for the Florida Panthers to make their annual rush from the edge of the playoff bubble to a few points out of the eighth playoff seed. While last season the Panthers were in a playoff spot for a few weeks before the trade deadline and made no major moves only to see the team backslide into ninth place, this year the team starts its final push from a more familiar place, twelfth in the Eastern Conference.

After Sunday's games, the Panthers sit six points behind the eighth place Boston Bruins and ten behind the sixth and seventh place Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens. While earlier in the season, I was looking at a 94 point threshold separating the playoff teams from the rest of the conference, thanks to a lot of mediocre teams in the East this year it's looking more like 90 points will do it.

The Panthers are at 66 points now with 15 games left. They would have needed a 14-1 record to make 94 points, but need a 12-3-0 or 11-2-2 to hit 90 points. While this would be a considerable improvement on their season as a whole, at times the Panthers have performed almost well enough to make this type of goal. The team has not been able to put together a win streak longer than three games, the latest chance last week having been a 3-0 shutout at the hands of former Panther Craig Anderson and the Colorado Avalanche. However, bracketing that loss were two come-from-behind wins against the Minnesota Wild and the Western Conference leading San Jose Sharks. Even if the Panthers continue to be unable to put together a long win streak, four more three-game win streaks could be enough to put them into the playoffs.

Although they're pretty far out, the schedule down the stretch puts the Panthers largely in control of their destiny. Of the teams ahead of them in the pack, they play all of them save the Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers including three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In addition, the Panthers hold at least a game in hand on all of them and have two on the New York Rangers and three on the Canadiens. Other than a game Tuesday against the Rangers, the only other pack teams that the Canadiens play are the thirteenth place New York Islanders and fourteenth place Carolina Hurricanes. Both teams are only a point or two back, but Canadiens' losses here would help the Panthers' cause.

Here's a look at the remaining games.

3/16 - Washington @ Florida
3/18 - Phoenix @ Florida
3/20 - Buffalo @ Florida
3/21 - Tampa Bay @ Florida

3/23 - Florida @ Toronto
3/25 - Florida @ Montreal
3/27 - Florida @ Ottawa

3/29 - Nashville @ Florida
3/31 - Florida @ Buffalo
4/1 - Florida @ Boston

4/3 - NY Rangers @ Florida
4/6 - Ottawa @ Florida
4/8 - New Jersey @ Florida

4/10 - Florida @ Tampa Bay
4/11 - Florida @ Tampa Bay

If they can keep up the play from the games since the end of the Olympic break, it is possible for the Panthers to get another eleven or twelve wins in this schedule. That, of course, is a big if. But, with the exception of the Washington Capitals, who have had the Panthers' number this year, and maybe the Sabres, these are mostly winnable games. The Panthers will need to start out with six points in the four-game home stand to keep their hopes alive. I expect they will have a hard time against the Capitals, but need to get the remaining three wins. They spend five of the next six on the road. In this set, the Panthers will need to beat Montreal and Boston, plus at least two more. Four or five wins here will make the last five games interesting. If they lose more than three before April 1, then the odds are so long as to be effectively none.

But right now Panthers fans are looking at the familiar scenario of a slight hope of seeing the first playoffs in South Florida since 2000. Yes, the odds are long, but no one expected the team to go 4-1 their first five games after the trade deadline, and the loss of their top defensive pair. Additionally, Nathan Horton could be back in the lineup by the end of the week, bringing a much-needed offensive boost. Never count against the Panthers to make the end of the season interesting.

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