Standings Watch: Can the Panthers still be near the top of the Eastern Conference at Christmas?

In our last Standings Watch post we looked at the Panthers' pace over their first 10 games. That piece looked at the likelihood of teams making the playoffs based on their first 10 games and on their place in the standings at the beginning of November. More important than a team's place on November 1 is their pace. A bad pace from a team in the first 10 doesn't necessarily mean they'll miss the playoffs, though a poor enough start can make it unlikely. Similarly, there is no start that can guarantee a playoff spot.

The Panthers had 12 points in their first 10 games, a pace that, if they keep it up, will almost certainly result in a playoff berth. Since the lockout, no team that's kept up a pace of 12 points per 10 games over the whole season has missed the playoffs. See how the Panthers have kept up, after the jump.

In 20 games, the Panthers are 11-6-3, for 25 points, good enough for first in the division and second in the conference. Their last 10 record is 5-2-3, making their last 10 pace 13 and their season pace so far 12.5. Despite three shootout losses in a row and a mediocre 4-2-3 home record, the Panthers are holding a good pace. But can they keep it up?

Game Breakdown

The next set of ten games starts and ends with the New York Rangers.

11/23 Rangers at Panthers
11/25 Lightning at Panthers
11/26 Panthers at Lightning
11/29 Panthers at Hurricanes
12/1 Panthers at Kings
12/3 Panthers at Sharks
12/5 Capitals at Panthers
12/8 Panthers at Bruins
12/9 Panthers at Sabres
12/11 Panthers at Rangers

The next bunch of games is largely on the road. Following this week's home games, the only remaining home game over the next two weeks is when the Panthers host the Capitals on December 5. Breaking it down, there are 3 home games and 7 road games, two sets of back to back games, and, incredibly, only one game against a team that is currently higher in the standings. That one is the December 3 game against the Sharks. However, the Bruins, Sabres and Kings aren't far behind.

To pick up the 12 points, the record the Panthers need to shoot for is 6-4-0, or 5-3-2. However, they could go as low as 5-4-1 and still be on a 12 point season pace. Given the Panthers' road record thus far and their success against the Lightning, it is not a stretch to think that the Cats can pick up 5 or 6 wins in this stretch of games. The most difficult stretch will be at the end, when the Panthers return from a west coast road trip to face the Capitals, then trek up to the northeast for back to back games against the Bruins and Sabres.

Division Breakdown

The Hurricanes are off to a rough start. They've won their last two games but are 3-7-0 in their last ten. Their home record (5-5-1) isn't awful, but their road record (3-6-2) is very weak. They'll split their next ten evenly between home and road games, including a western Canada road trip, divisional games against the Panthers and Jets and visits to Toronto and Ottawa.

The Lightning are off to a weak start following their appearance in the Eastern Conference Final last year. They're at 20 points in 20 games following last night's 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their home (6-3-0) record is far better than on the road (3-6-2), but not enough to lift them out of the bottom third of the conference. Like the Panthers, the Lightning have 7 road and 3 home games in their immediate future, starting with a home and home against the Cats. They also have a Central Time road trip with games against Detroit and Minnesota, a visit to Ottawa and five games against Atlantic Division teams. The Hurricanes and Jets are right behind them and if they can't get to their game on the road, the Lightning could find themselves as the bottom of the Southeast in short order.

The Capitals are the Panthers' biggest competition for top of the division. The teams have been swapping places for the last week or so. The Caps started out strong, but are 4-5-1 in their last ten. Their home record (7-1-1) is excellent, but they have not been good on the road (4-6-0). The Capitals only play three of their next ten on the road, so have a great opportunity to get their season back on track. They play Winnipeg and Florida in the division and the Senators, Rangers, Leafs, Penguins, Blues, Sabres and Flyers out.

The Jets had a poor start, but are improving, with 12 points in their last ten games (5-3-2). They have been better at home (5-3-0) than away (3-6-3) and, with a five game home stand starting next week, have a good opportunity to move up the standings, especially if the teams right ahead of them, Carolina and Tampa Bay, continue to struggle. The Jets have two games against the Hurricanes as well as tilts against the Capitals, Bruins, Senators, Devils, Coyotes, and Wild.

* The title of this post was inspired by my Standings Watch post from last November: Can the Panthers be out of the League Basement by Christmas? As we all know, the answer to that question was a resounding "No."