After starting the week off with a disappointing loss to the Minnesota Wild, things are looking up for the scrappy Florida Panthers. The Cats built their first winning streak of the season with back-to-back home wins over the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators, and got the weekend off from game action to recharge their collective battery after the successful 2-1 homestand.
That rest will come in handy as Florida will play on consecutive nights for the first time this season, with road games in Columbus on Monday and Detroit on Tuesday.
With the Panthers coming off one of their best performances of the season the last time out, the key to this trip will likely be the first game against the injury-riddled Blue Jackets. Columbus has lost six in a row and its roster is chock-full of players who should be plying their trade in the AHL right now. Sound familiar Panther fans? Beating the Jackets would push the Cats' winning streak to a modest three and guarantee they return home with at least ten wins. That could set things up quite nicely, as they face those same sagging Blue Jackets, as well as another Eastern Conference bottom-feeder, the Buffalo Sabres, in their next two at the BB&T Center.
Detroit will be a much tougher place to depart with a point or two. The Red Wings are 8-2-2 at Joe Louis Arena this season, and are currently nursing a three-game winning streak of their own. Beating them could be too daunting a task for a team that played the night before.
The Cats are not without questions as they hit the Buckeye State. Will Roberto Luongo be healthy enough to take one of the two starts, or will it be up to Al Montoya to go twice in a short span? Does new coach Gerard Gallant trust the recalled Dan Ellis enough to give him some playing time (Ed. note: Ellis was reassigned to San Antonio shortly after publication; Luongo is on the trip)? Will we ever see summer signing Dave Bolland again?
One thing the Panthers have working in their favor is depth, even if they are not quite 100% healthy yet. The Cats beat Ottawa without one of their better fowards, Jussi Jokinen, in the lineup. Jimmy Hayes, who was the odd man out in the Carolina win, returned to pot the winning goal in the third period against the Sens.
The quick, two-game trip could provide an interesting fork in the road of the still young season. Win both games and all of the sudden Panthers are 11-6-6, and not only very possibly sitting in a playoff spot when they return to Sunrise, but looking every bit like they deserve to be there. Drop both games and their record falls back to a middling 9-8-2, and the palpable momentum they've started to build up is gone. The last two wins provided a potential spark, now it's time for the team to catch fire and go on a real roll.