Florida Panthers: Stanley Cup Champions

SUNRISE, FL - MARCH 13: Goaltender Jose Theodore #60 of the Florida Panthers is congratulated by teammates after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 13, 2012 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Just as an exercise, go ahead and repeat that phrase:

"Florida Panthers, Stanley Cup Champions."

Now, let that sink in for a second...breathe. Now, say it again and really mean it, BELIEVE it.

"FLORIDA PANTHERS, STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS."

There's more than a few reasons to be optimistic despite the way these Panthers have limped towards the postseason, almost backing in. Why? Why not! Stranger things have happened - and these Florida Panthers should have you all seeing red by this point.

Streaky
Yes, the Florida Panthers have been very streaky ever since the all-star break. They've had three streaks each of three or more wins or losses. They're currently weathering a rough patch where they've dropped seven of eight, sometimes against inferior opponents, yet somehow can also lay claim to being on a hot streak, where they've gained points in 12 of 14 games. Confused? Don't be. Some around the NHL will call it the loser point. Yeah, ok, that's valid, but hey, we've been bit by sqwanky rules before, why shouldn't we benefit, just this once. I think that we will probably see a club that is at least five to 10 points better next season through an infusion of young talent, including Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom, and added chemistry, through having played a season together (and hopefully losing very little in free agency). So we've lost seven of eight...that just means we're about to get hot again.

Favorable Matchups
So, we draw the New Jersey Devils in the first round. No surprise, it's poetic justice and some may see a superior opponent. This is true sometimes, but Martin Brodeur, aka. "The Ageless Wonder," is not, in fact, ageless. He's been porous at times since he tore his biceps muscle in 2009, his GAA of 2.44 is just slightly above average, but a save percentage of .906 would be no better than third on the Panthers squad (that's not even counting "The Alien"). Florida's all-time points percentage against New Jersey is a paltry .409, at 25-39-7-6, not so good. That team is not this team. This season, Florida has gone 2-1-1 against the Devils. Not counting empty netters (or the shootout, as that does not exist in the playoffs,) Florida has outscored the Devils 10-9 through those four games. That hardly seems like a team that should have us running for the hills.Call me crazy, but I think Panthers in six.

So, on to the second round. Our opponent will be Boston. (Let's not kid ourselves Ottawa). We also have a 2-1-1 record against the Bruins this season. 32-28-11-11 all-time. Aside from an 8-0 embarrassment that we all would rather forget, we've outscored these guys 10-5. So that's what I'm going to ask of you...forget the 8-0 game. We can run with these dogs, don't doubt it for a minute.

In the Eastern Conference Championship, we come up against maybe the NHL's strongest team. Scared yet? Don't be. Although they've outscored Florida 14-6, the last game between the two was in January, and Florida took them to the extra frame. A 1-2-1 record may not be as encouraging as the other two, but hey, there's historical precedence here. This Panthers squad may be better than the one that surprised Boston, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins WAAAAAY back in 1996.

No Shootouts in Lord Stanley's Tournament
So, here's the rub. Aside from Wojtek Wolski, (and maybe Dmitry Kulikov, go figure) we lack a true specialist in the shootout. This has resulted in an embarrassing 6-11 record after overtime. Only Phoenix comes close, at 6-10, to being as bad as the Panthers are in the shootout (among playoff teams). Eliminating the shootout isn't necessarily a panacea for Florida in the playoffs, but I'll take four on four over the skills competition any day of the week. Hey, roll the dice, pick your poison, put up or shut up, make it or break it, pick your own special sports quote of the day, but without the shootout to worry about, Kevin Dineen can concentrate on EVERYTHING ELSE, at least until next year.

Depth
So, Jose Theodore hasn't been hot lately. Scott Clemmensen was lousy a month ago, right? By and large, though, Theodore has been Florida's first star all season. And Clemmer's has been more than serviceable as a backup. 13-6-6 is a winning record, no matter how you slice it.

The VFW top line has showed signs of waking up here in the last few games. Marco Sturm, Scottie Upshall, John Madden, Mikael Samuelsson and the ineffable Sean Bergenheim can all smell the playoffs. Tomas Kopecky is the terminator. Wojtek Wolski is playing for a contract somewhere. Marcel Goc is out for blood (hehe).

For the defensemen, Brian Campbell has been here before, and can really lead the way now. Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Jason Garrison are both sans any sort of NHL playoff experience. Mike Weaver is a living, breathing wall, and Ed Jovanovski was ON THE TEAM THE LAST TIME WE WERE AWESOME!!!

Tomorrow night
So we play the Washington Capitals tomorrow. It's the only way things could have ended. It's fitting that the Cat's leading scorer, Tomas Fleischmann, will score the goal that wins the game that clinches a playoff berth against his former team in their house. They need this game more than the Panthers do, from a purely mathematical standpoint. When the chips are down these Caps ALWAYS fold like a house of cards.

Florida Panthers, Stanley Cup Champions. Stranger things have happened, and why not this year.

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