It’s looking more and more like the battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is going to come down to the final weekend of the season, but perhaps not in the way some of us might have envisioned it. The chase has ground down to a turtle race, and a team that some may have thought dead a week or two ago might be the hare lurking in the weeds.
Most of the teams in serious contention for the second wild berth in the east are currently limping towards the finish line, allowing the entire conference to stay mathematically alive, meaning less of a chance of a “gimme” on the schedule.
For awhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked they were going to take control of the spot or maybe even move into the top three of the Atlantic Division. Unfortunately, for long-suffering Buds fans, a lackluster February (5-4-5) has the club on the outside looking in, albeit by a mere point.
Just two points off the current pace are the Florida Panthers. After a perfect five-game road trip, it looked the Cats were finally on their way to sweeping aside of season of inconsistency, but recent problems scoring goals and winning a home have our hometown team needing to leap frog both the Leafs and New York Islanders to make the playoffs for a second straight time. The Panthers are just 1-4-1 in their last six games. Not a good sign.
The Islanders are the team that would squeak in if the playoffs started today. The boys from Brooklyn are in the midst of a nine-game road trip, that still has three games to run, and did the Leafs and Cats (and everyone else below them) a huge favor by dropping games in Chicago (in a shootout) and Calgary this weekend. The Islanders still have to play Edmonton, Vancouver and St. Louis before heading back to Barclays Center to start a home-and-home with Carolina.
With a 6-2-2 run over their last ten games, the Tampa Bay Lightning have gained ground on all three teams above them in the standings. The Bolts are just three points behind the Islanders and play six of their next eight games on home ice at Amalie Arena, including a key head-to-head match up with the Panthers on Saturday night.
Like Tampa Bay, the Philadelphia Flyers are three points behind the Islanders, but the Flyers, 4-5-1 over their last ten, would really need to turn things fast to vault over four teams to make it to the Stanley Cup dance.
Let’s get back to the Panthers. Depending on what happens this week, that game in Tampa could end up in “must win” category for the Cats, who must start winning games and stop depending on the charity of others.
The Panthers are done with the Islanders and the Flyers, and the only other head-to-head games they have left with the other four serious contenders (Buffalo, five points out, has their work cutout for them) are a pair with the Maple Leafs. The teams play in Sunrise on March 14 and conclude the season-series in Toronto two weeks later.
Those three games will be huge for the Panthers, as will the fifteen others starting with tomorrow night’s tilt with the New York Rangers. Florida will play at home nine times at home and nine times on the road. If the Cats don’t find a way to turn things around at the BB&T Center, they could head end being on the teams hiding in their shell come the late hours of April 9.