For the first time in ten years, the Panthers are even going into Thanksgiving week. Most of the league has played around twenty games and the leaders and losers are starting to break from the pack. In the Eastern Conference the Capitals (30 points), Flyers (28) and Canadiens (27) are the division leaders while the Devils and Islanders bring up the rear with twelve points each in twenty games. The pack starts at twenty-four points with a three-way tie between the Bruins, Lightning and Penguins and ends at seventeen points and thirteenth place with the Maple Leafs. The Panthers are one point and place ahead of the Leafs and play the top four pack teams in the next week. In this preview we'll look at the next four games and at the Eastern Conference standings.
Last 10: 6-4-0
The Panthers, for their part, have played well defensively, in the top ten in goals allowed, five-on-five goals for and penalty kill. The power play, however, has been horrendous and this has helped the Panthers to a 19th place showing in goals for per game. Their sixth-ranked penalty kill coupled with taking the fewest penalties in the league and good play five-on-five has helped them be one of the stingiest teams in the league. They have held on to every lead they've had save one, but have only come back from behind twice this season. The key for them to win games has been to score early and hold the lead.
Last 10: 6-3-1
Schedule: 11/22 @FLA
First up are the sixth-place Pittsburgh Penguins. Their power play is not quite as bad as the Panthers' but isn't too far off. Their penalty kill, on the other hand, is excellent. The Panthers have a slight edge at even strength, so the key to a Panthers win here is to continue the good five-on-five play and get a lot of shots early. The last two years have seen the Panthers take points from all but one of the games, so even if they can't get a win here, there's a good chance of this one being the first overtime game of the season for the Cats.
Last 10: 5-3-2
Schedule: 11/22: @TBL, 11/24 @FLA
The Panthers lost 4-0 to the Bruins in Boston last week. The game was close until late in the third when the Bruins scored three goals. The Panthers could get a win with the same score early and hold the lead philosophy, but this is likely going to be their most difficult game of the week. The Bruins are a better team five-on-five, on the power play and on the penalty kill and are the stingiest team in the league, to boot.
Last 10: 5-5-0
Schedule: 11/22 CGY, 11/24 @TBL, 11/26 @FLA
The Rangers, as far as the statistics are concerned, are similar to the Penguins, but they allow a few more goals. Their power play is also in the bottom third of the league but they score at even strength. Again, good defensive play and a couple of quick goals will likely mean a Panthers win.
Last 10: 4-5-1
Schedule: 11/22 BOS, 11/24 NYR, 11/26 @WSH, 11/27 FLA
While the Panthers need to get points in at least two of the three home games to move up in the standings, this is the must-win game of the week. The Lightning are second in the division behind Washington and if the Panthers want to move up in the pack, division games are key. The two teams met in the Panthers' home opener, with the Panthers pasting the Lightning 6-0. That was a rarity for Tampa Bay, who are fifth in the league in goals-per-game. However, they also let in a lot of goals, particularly at even strength. This is the second game of back-to-back games for both teams. The Panthers have yet to win the second game in four such contests, while the Lightning are 3-2-0 including an 8-7 win in Philadelphia last week. Their power play is excellent, but as the Panthers take the fewest penalties in the league, this may not help them much. This is a game that, by the numbers, favors the Panthers and they need to win it.
NY Rangers: 11/22 CGY, 11/24 @TBL, 11/26 @FLA, 11/27 @NSH
Atlanta: 11/24 DET, 11/26 MTL, 11/28 BOS
Carolina: 11/24 WSH, 11/26 @BOS, 11/28 @WSH
Ottawa: 11/22 LAK, 11/24 DAL, 11/26 @PIT, 11/27 TOR
Buffalo: 11/24 PIT, 11/26 TOR, 11/27 @MTL
Florida: 11/22 PIT, 11/24 BOS, 11/25 NYR, 11/26 @TBL
Toronto: 11/22 DAL, 11/26 @BUF, 11/27 @OTT
The Panthers, along with the Bruins, have played the fewest number of games in the Eastern Conference. They will pull one game closer to many teams this week, but still hold games in hand on most of the conference. Atlanta and Carolina both play quality opponents this week and one fewer game than the Cats, giving them a good opportunity to move up on both division opponents. With one game more than Buffalo and Toronto, they should be able to hold off the Leafs and move up on the Sabres. Ottawa has an easier schedule and has a good chance of staying ahead of the Panthers, while a win on Black Friday will help the Cats move up on the Rangers. The Panthers moved up one place last week and I think they can move up two more this week with continued good defensive play and a few goals.