It's January, which means the Panthers organization has sent out season ticket renewal packages, the team is several places out of a playoff spot and the fans are angry. Does this sound familiar?
With sixty percent of the season gone, it seems a good time to assess the standings and the Panthers' place in it. There is mixed news here. While the Panthers currently sit in eleventh place, they are two points out of eighth. The Flyers and Thrashers, both having won tonight, are one point behind the current holder of eighth place, the Islanders.
So, while the bad news is that the Panthers are out of the top eight, most of the conference is currently packed really tightly around ninth place. Only seven points separate the fifth place New York Rangers from the thirteenth place Tampa Bay Lightning. Only the Leafs and Hurricanes truly sit out of the playoff picture at the moment.
Right now, Sports Club Stats has the Panthers with about a 35% chance of making the playoffs. My own calculations have the Panthers, if they continue on the same home and away win/loss/OT loss pace, finishing with 84 points and eleventh place. 94 points has been the magic number the last several years and indeed the Panthers lost out on a tiebreaker at 93 points last season. Sports Club Stats has 95 points at 100% likely to make the playoffs. To hit 95 points, the Panthers have to go 21-9-3 or 22-10-1 in their last 33 games. At the pace they're on now, they will finish out 14-13-6. At that rate, they need to improve by seven wins, not a small feat.
On the positive side, the tight packing of the conference means that there is a good chance that the number of points required to make the playoffs will be considerably less this year. If all teams maintain their current pace, the seventh and eighth place teams (the Flyers and Islanders) will finish with 87 points, only three above where the Panthers are projected to finish. If this holds, the Panthers will only need to put together two more wins to make the playoffs.
This is probably unlikely and the true number will likely be higher. Sports Club Stats has 87 points as only 29.9% likely to make the playoffs. A more realistic number is 92 points. At 97.1% likely to make the playoffs and one point less than the team finished with last year, this is probably a good benchmark. This would require the Panthers to win only four more games than projected, or 18-8-6. That is still a large number of overtime losses, and if the Panthers can tighten up when they have a lead late, they may be able to pull off something more like 21-9-3, which would give them the 95 points and an all-but-guaranteed playoff spot.
So, what we're ultimately looking at is that in their last 33 games, the Panthers can only afford about ten to twelve more losses. They have twelve left before the Olympic break. If they can lose three or less of these twelve (or conversely, win nine of them), they will set themselves up for a possible playoff run after the break.
Those games break down as follows:
7 home/5 away
12 Eastern Conference/3 Western Conference
3 Southeast Division/3 Atlantic Division/3 Northeast Division
2 Northwest Divsion/1 Pacific Division
5 teams are in the mix for spots from fifth to eighth in the Eastern Conference
2 teams are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference
The opportunity is still out there, the Panthers just need to grab it.